No. 18 Hawkeyes come up just short of rival Illinois, and 4 seed in Big Ten Tournament
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Luka Garza scored 28 points for his Iowa basketball team Sunday, but it was two that he didn’t get that were lingering in his mind long after a damaging loss to Illinois.
Garza took an inbounds pass in the lane with 1.6 seconds left and 290-pound Illini center Kofi Cockburn leaning into him chest to chest. Garza didn’t think he had time to dribble or fake a shot, so he tried to get a quick one off from his shoulder. Cockburn denied that attempt.
Illinois hung on to win 78-76, and earn the important 4 seed and a double-bye in this week’s Big Ten Conference Tournament.
No. 18 Iowa (20-11, 11-9 Big Ten) will take a two-game losing streak into that event as a 5 seed. That’s what was at stake at the State Farm Center, where a rollicking Illinois crowd of 15,544 helped make this the most intense, and important, contest of Iowa’s season.
The Hawkeyes will face the winner of Wednesday’s Minnesota-Northwestern game at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in Indianapolis. Those are the only two league teams Iowa beat on the road this season.
“I’ve already replayed the play in my head a million times,” Garza said about a half-hour after the game ended.
“I’m going to make sure I convert the next time. I’m that type of player who wants to take those shots in those moments.”
The next time Iowa faces No. 22 Illinois (21-10, 13-7) could be at 1:30 p.m. Friday. That’s the quarterfinal matchup if the Hawkeyes advance.
Iowa had defeated Illinois in each of their previous five meetings, including a 72-65 decision in Iowa City on Feb. 2 that ended with acrimony and an abbreviated handshake line.
So it was no surprise that Sunday’s rematch felt like a cage match. Cockburn and Garza pounded away at each other in the post. There was no room to move on the wings, particularly in the second half.
The score was tied 41-41 at halftime. But it was the Hawkeyes who flinched first early in the second half. They made only two field goals in the opening eight minutes, both by freshman point guard Joe Toussaint. They turned the ball over five times. On defense, they either were slow to contest shots or allowed second-chance opportunities too often.
Illinois had 12 offensive rebounds and built a 66-50 lead that appeared insurmountable.
That’s when the home team found itself on its heels.
Garza, who attempted only one shot in those opening eight minutes of the second half, went to work. The leading scorer in the Big Ten, he played all but three seconds and made 12 of 21 shots while drawing seven fouls.
Connor McCaffery hit a pair of 3-pointers. Bakari Evelyn added another big one late. The Hawkeyes climbed back within two points, but couldn’t complete the comeback.
The Iowa-Illinois rivalry is alive and well.
“I feel like it’s heated because we’re both good,” McCaffery said.
“We’re not folding. We’re going to fight back.”
Fredrick, Wieskamp quiet again while tempers flare briefly
It was another quiet game for Iowa’s starting wing duo of CJ Fredrick and Joe Wieskamp. Both appeared frustrated at times by the physical play of the Illini. Fredrick scored three points and Wieskamp seven, on nine shot attempts.
It spilled into the open with a minute left in the first half when Fredrick threw up his arms while cutting away from the ball in an attempt to get free of Illinois guard Trent Frazier. He was called for an offensive foul, which Fredrick later said he deserved.
But when Frazier started to let Fredrick hear about it, the Hawkeye fired back, earning both players technical fouls.
Meanwhile, at the top of the key, McCaffery picked up the basketball upon hearing the whistle, only to have Da’Monte Williams of Illinois swat it out of his hands. McCaffery took a swipe of his own and the two went nose to nose for a few uncomfortable seconds. They, too, were assessed technicals.
“It was just competitive dudes,” McCaffery explained.
Fredrick was a little more pointed in his comments.
“I’ve been playing basketball a long time. I have not been guarded like that ever,” the redshirt freshman said. “I don’t complain a lot. I think I was fouled on every possession. They were grabbing me the entire game. I couldn’t get open. I was running off screens like crazy. I just felt like they weren’t giving me a position to have some room.”
Wieskamp is Iowa’s second-leading scorer at 14 points per game; Fredrick is third at 10.2. They have each been held below their averages in their past six outings.
The Hawkeyes need more out of each of them when tournament play begins, no matter the officiating.
Joe Toussaint provides a spark in March, and a great quote
Toussaint gave Iowa a spark at the outset of each half. He had nine points in the opening half, and then scored the Hawkeyes’ first five points of the second. He made a 3-pointer in each half, starting to show increasing confidence in that shot.
Toussaint's 14 points were the most he's had since a Jan. 22 victory over Rutgers.
But he played only 6 minutes after intermission, 19 for the game, as Iowa coach Fran McCaffery continues to prefer the senior Evelyn in late-game situations. Evelyn finished with eight points and four rebounds.
Toussaint said he’s ready for the March spotlight, and that Sunday was a great indication of the kind of intensity that is in store.
“It definitely felt like a tournament game. It was one of the biggest games I’ve ever played in,” he said.
After 31 games, Toussaint said he no longer feels like a freshman. And he’s loving the rivalries involved in Big Ten competition, particularly with Illinois. But he denied there’s any bad blood between the athletes.
“We don’t hate each other,” Toussaint said, before pausing as if realizing he couldn’t speak for both sides.
“Well, we don’t hate them.”
Friday afternoon in Indianapolis could be very interesting indeed.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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