Iowa basketball's starters struggle against Illinois as Hawkeyes loses second straight game
Iowa men's basketball received good news before tip off against Illinois on Monday night: top score Keegan Murray was set to return to the lineup after missing previous two games to injury. Murray led all Iowa starters in scoring but his 19 points fell short of his season average, and that was a trend throughout Monday night.
Illinois (7-2, 2-0) defeated Iowa (7-2, 0-2) by a score of 87-83, giving Iowa their second consecutive loss and more importantly a second Big Ten loss. Iowa's starters combined to shoot only 16-38 from the field, 2-11 from three-point range and only attempted 14 total free throws. The Hawkeyes normally high-powered offense couldn't get into a rhythm from the beginning of the game forcing head coach Fran McCaffery to heavily utilize his bench.
The strategy worked well early. Illinois led 20-12 at the 11:48 mark in the first half when McCaffery subbed in his usual bench five: Ahron Ulis, Tony Perkins, Connor McCaffery, Payton Sandfort and Kris Murray and they delivered a game-changing run.
Led by Perkins who scored 10 consecutive points for Iowa, the Hawkeyes went on a 21-2 run to temporarily seize control of the game and led 36-34 with three minutes to halftime. That'd be the last time Iowa had momentum, McCaffery subbed the starters back in, they failed to score another point and the Illini never looked back.
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Illinois had a 39-36 lead to start the second half and stretched their lead by using their significant size advantage. The size disparity Iowa will see throughout the year was on display last Friday against Purdue but it was more of a deciding factor on Monday night.
Illinois center Kofi Cockburn was at the center of Illinois' second half strategy. After scoring only three points in the first half, Cockburn scored 14 points in the second half to go with 12 rebounds. Overall, Illinois outrebounded Iowa by a 52-23 margin and if that figure wasn't damaging enough, the Illini had 19 offensive rebounds that led to 24 second-chance points.
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Iowa's largest deficit reached 15 points. A late 10-2 run shortened the gap to eight points with five minutes remaining, then Keegan Murray went on a scoring rampage, with 12 points in the final three minutues to cut the lead down to as low as three points but it was too little, too late.
There were several stretches in the game where the Hawkeyes went scoreless for three-plus minutes or more. Late-game points improved their shooting splits but overall, it wasn't their best offensive showings.
The uptick in competition has provided tough tests for Iowa recently, they'll have another in a few days when they travel to Ames to face No. 19 Iowa State.
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.