Iowa basketball learned what it will take to make March run, despite loss at Illinois

Iowa was "right there" in the eyes of forward Keegan Murray.

The Hawkeyes had two opportunities in the final 15 seconds to upset No. 20 Illinois: three free throw attempts to take the lead down and then the potential game-winning shot. Neither opportunity went their way resulting in a 74-72 loss.

While frustrating, Murray says there's something positive to take away from Sunday night. 

"It just come down to the little things," Murray said. "We went neck and neck with the Big Ten (regular season) champs so it's just little things that can make us better. At the end of the day you just have to look back on it and know that we're right there and can compete with any team in the country. Our whole team feels that way and just going into March with our heads held high." 

To his point, Iowa (22-9, 12-8) was in control for the majority of the game. They led for nearly 27 minutes of gameplay and by as much as 15 points. And that was without starting forward Patrick McCaffery (hip injury) and starters Jordan Bohannon and Connor McCaffery going scoreless in the game. 

Ultimately, a cold shooting spell, especially from the free throw line, doomed them down the stretch.

The second best free throw shooting team in the Big Ten (76%), the Hawkeyes shot only 45% from the line on Sunday night including six missed free throws in the final three minutes of the game.

A few more makes down the stretch and it's potentially a different outcome. 

"On my end, I'm surprised I missed four (free throws) because I'm a 90% free throw shooter," guard Tony Perkins said. "But at the end of the day I'll continue to practice and bring everyone who was missing along with me so we can get better and make them in the long run." 

Illinois' Kofi Cockburn (21) works the ball inside against Iowa's Filip Rebraca during the first half Sunday in Champaign, Illinois.

The aftermath of Sunday's loss is Iowa falls to fifth place in the final regular season standings and will not have a double bye in this week's Big Ten tournament. They'll play again on Thursday against the winner of Nebraska vs. Northwestern. 

In some ways Sunday's loss to Illinois resembles their Feb. 17 home loss to Michigan, a game that the Hawkeyes felt like they let slip away. Their demeanor after the game from players to coach Fran McCaffery was positive and their hope is they can channel this loss into bounce back wins, much like they did in February. 

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"This loss will help us in a way going into the Big Ten tournament," Murray said. "Just fighting adversity throughout the entire game, at the end of the day we have to pull it in March because it's win or go home. So just got to learn from it, go to Indianapolis and do our best there." 

Here are a few more takeaway's from Sunday night's game: 

Dissecting the game's final play 

Iowa had as good a look as any in the game's final play. Tony Perkins pushed the ball up the court and found Keegan Murray off a screen, who swung it to Kris Murray for the potential game-winner. Afterwards, Fran McCaffery expressed how pleased he was with how the play was executed.

"I thought (Keegan's extra pass) was big time," McCaffery said. "You just hope your guys in that situation make the right read that gives your team a chance. We're not shooting a contested step back that has no chance. That had a chance, it was halfway down." 

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Keegan doubled-downed on his decision to pass up the shot for what he thought was the best possible shot. 

"I could've shot it if I wanted to," Keegan Murray said. "I saw (Illinois' Kofi Cockburn) flying down and he was guarding Kris so I knew he'd be open. I had full confidence Kris would've made that shot and it went halfway in. That's all you can ask for." 

Rebounding continues to improve 

In their last meeting on Dec. 6, Illinois outrebounded Iowa by 29 on their way to am 87-83 win. On Sunday the effort was much better as Iowa only lost the rebounding battle by a 41-38 margin and for long stretches in the game led in that category. Perhaps the most impressive individual performance was by guard Tony Perkins who had 12 rebounds. 

"You can't come in here and get outrebounded by 29," McCaffery said. "It was amazing that we were as close as we were and we only gave up three offensive rebounds in the second half, which gives you a chance against this team." 

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That directly correlated to success on defense. Iowa only surrendered nine second chance points compared to 24 second chance points (19 offensive rebounds) in the first meeting. Keegan Murray said more consistency in that area and overall defensive intensity is needed entering a new season. 

"I feel like our effort defensively, especially in the first half, was really good," Murray said. "We got stops late in the game a little when we needed but we need to get more stops in the second half to build a more comfortable lead." 

Perkins, Sandfort came up big 

Illinois' Andre Curbelo (5) works the ball inside against Iowa's Filip Rebraca during the first half Sunday.

Following Thursday night's win over Michigan, McCaffery noted that he felt bad that true freshman Payton Sandfort didn't play due to the flow of the game. On Sunday, he called his number and he delivered. In 15 minutes, Sandfort scored seven points (3-for-3 shooting) and had a nice pass to Keegan Murray that led to an easy dunk. 

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"Patrick (McCaffery)'s not here (due to injury) so that gave more opportunity but (Sandfort) is a really good player," McCaffery said. "Not only did he make shots but he was in the right place. (Illinois) runs really good stuff so he's making a lot of decisions out there quickly and he was exceptional." 

McCaffery also said he felt like starting shooting guard Tony Perkins was in a good place after a recent stretch of solid performances. On Sunday, he had his his most complete game of the season with 17 points, 12 rebounds (nine in the second half) and five assists. 

"Only thing on my mind was rebounding and getting my teammates open," Perkins said. "Once I got to distributing it just opened up for me to score and shoot the ball. Just making the right plays for us to win was my priority." 

With each passing game it's clear that the decision to start Perkins was the right one. For the third time in four games he attempted double digit shots, a sign of his growing confidence on offense but his five assists, which tied his season high, is another element of his game that could grow as the season moves forward.

And his growth is evident to opposing coaches like Illinois coach Brad Underwood. 

"Defensively they have the best (defensive efficiency rating) in the league since Perkins has been in the lineup," Underwood said. "And that's an eight-, nine-game stretch. They're playing as hard as anyone we've played and their lineup change helped them in my opinion." 

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 ksmith@gannett.com.