Tony Perkins' career day propels Iowa basketball to rivalry win over No. 25 Illinois

Dargan Southard
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY — For those jammed inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday, whether part of the robust black-and-gold contingency or the orange specks splattered throughout, every possession seemed to carry the weight of the world.

Iowa and No. 25 Illinois put on a quality Big Ten show in front of a sold-out crowd, dueling deep into the afternoon with one clutch bucket after another. Tony Perkins put the Hawkeyes on his back. The Fighting Illini desperately tried to escape town with a massive road win.

The Hawkeyes landed the final blow.

Clutch defensive work in the final minutes followed Perkins’ Herculean effort and helped Iowa fight off Illinois for an 81-79 win. The Hawkeyes (15-8, 7-5 Big Ten Conference) now take a step up the Big Ten ladder amid a muddled mess behind Purdue.

"This was a rivalry game," said Perkins, who poured in a career-high 32 points with 25 in the second half. "I love those."

With the week’s ticket saga faded, aside from some early raucous recognition for the Cedar Rapids Boys & Girls Club, Iowa and Illinois (16-7, 7-5) settled in for a March-like closing stretch. No cliché here.

After Perkins ignited Iowa's second-half surge from eight points down, Payton Sandfort turned Carver-Hawkeye Arena up the loudest with a deep trey that supplied Iowa a 79-76 advantage with 1:23 remaining. Although the Hawkeyes struggled to string multiple stops together down the stretch, Iowa got two after the Sandfort swish to close this one out.

"When Payton hit that 3 toward the end of the game, that's probably the loudest I've ever heard Carver," said Iowa forward Kris Murray, who added 19 hard-earned points. "It was special."

Until then, Perkins held just about everything down offensively. Whether it was mid-range jumpers or aggressive pushes toward the rim that usually resulted in two charity-stripe swishes, Perkins single-handedly kept Iowa afloat and prevented Illinois from lengthening its lead.

The Indianapolis product scored 17 of Iowa's final 28 points while hitting 15 consecutive free throws on 16 attempts to match a single-game school record. After Perkins tied the game at 65 with 6:25 remaining, Iowa never played from behind again.

"It was, 'OK this guy's cooking, just keep going,'" said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. "What was impressive to me about that was the players who were on the floor with him, they're yelling out plays to me that we should be running for (Perkins).

"So they recognized that 'OK, this guy's on fire. We're going to him. Nobody else is shooting the ball right now.' It helped that we were in the double bonus so early. We got into the bonus pretty quickly pretty much because of him. I've been doing this a long time. I haven't had too many guys go off like that."

Separation is gold in tight rivalry matchups, and Illinois thought it found some early in the second half. A methodical 11-0 run coincided with an Iowa field-goal drought of more than five minutes, as the Illini pushed the lead to 47-39 with 15:46 remaining. After putting up just two points in the first half, Jayden Epps hopped on the end of that Illinois surge and ultimately scored 12 consecutive Illini points in fewer than four minutes.

That wasn’t the only offensive adversity Iowa had to fend off.  Its first five-minute stretch without a field goal allowed the Fighting Illini to tiptoe away momentarily, grabbing a lead as large as 36-29 with 1:23 until the break.

That was just enough time for Iowa to deliver one more first-half counter and pull the energy back to its side. A very unnecessary Illinois goaltend after Filip Rebraca drew a foul ended the field-goal futility. A deep contested Murray trey at the horn prevented McCaffery from exploding after his team didn’t see or hear his timeout request on the possession prior.

Either way, Iowa trotted to the locker room with a manageable 36-35 deficit that could’ve been much worse. When Illinois made its big second-half push, Iowa could still see the Illini up ahead and wasn’t forced to climb out of a double-digit hole.

"Every game (in the Big Ten) is like this one," McCaffery said. "You're on the winning end or the losing end. There aren't a lot of blowouts. I don't care who's playing whom.

"You want to manage the game in a way where you can get to the free-throw line, you can take care of the ball and you can get the right guys enough shots. (Illinois) is a really good team. They are really good."

Keep things close and steal it late became Iowa’s clear path to victory once the Hawkeyes eventually ran Illinois down in the second half. Three other Illini reached double figures alongside Epps — Matthew Mayer (21 points), Dain Dainja (17) and Terrence Shannon Jr. (11) — but Iowa limited Illinois to just two field goals over the final five minutes.    

That allowed Perkins' heroics to be fully appreciated.

"When that time of the game came," Perkins said, "coach Fran just said, 'Keep attacking. Keep attacking.'"

Dargan Southard is a sports trending reporter and covers Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.