On a beautiful, warm February day, the Illini pulled off an ugly road win against the cold-shooting Hawkeyes. Beating Iowa is always a pleasure, and earning the sweep against this bitter rival is one of the highlights of a difficult season. Illinois came out with Tracy Abrams in the starting lineup, a nod to his improved play against Penn State. Jalen Coleman-Lands got the starter-level minutes, however, and had one of his better games as an Illini. After a rocky first half in which the teams combined for 21 turnovers, the Hawkeyes took a 29-25 lead into the locker room.
Play improved a bit in the second half. Four minutes in, the Illini caught and passed Iowa on a Malcolm Hill three-pointer. From there on, the score see-sawed fitfully as Illinois scored a few buckets and Iowa made free throws. The Hawkeyes went an astonishing 7 minutes without a made field goal, but Illinois could only stretch the margin to four at 50-46. To end the drought, Nicholas Baer threw down a game-tying dunk. It was that kind of game. Iowa maintained a lead for four minutes before Illinois caught up and held on for the last 2 minutes to win 70-66.
The most consistent lineup in a choppy game featured Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, Te’Jon Lucas, Jalen Coleman-Lands, and Michael Finke. These were the five on the court to finish things out and the guys who played the most minutes. Hill had a solid all-around game, leading the team in points (21) and rebounds (8), and throwing in 4 assists and 2 steals. Lucas, Coleman-Lands, and Finke each contributed 12 points, and Finke was a surprise assists leader with 5. Coleman-Lands added 6 rebounds and three steals, one of them to seal the victory.
Illinois gutted this one out. The game was sloppy throughout: Illinois finished with 17 turnovers, the Hawkeyes with 15. There was little offensive flow, especially in the first half, although the Illini did shoot over 47% for the game. Iowa employed full and ¾ court pressure at times, and the Illini struggled to get the ball up the court. At this point in the season – and with two senior point guards – breaking the press probably shouldn’t be such an adventure. There was one ten-second call (against Jaylon Tate) and multiple turnovers or near turnovers. Occasionally, when Lucas could thread the needle to Finke flashing to center court, Illinois countered the press with easy buckets, but they couldn’t break it consistently enough to convince Iowa to stop using it. It wasn’t pretty, but the effort was there for Illinois yesterday, especially defensively, and it was enough to win on a day the home team shot under 40%.
Looking back at the pregame questions, Illinois did a decent job against Peter Jok again. He scored 16 points, but 3 of those came on a three-pointer with a second left and Illinois ahead by 5. Hill made two free throws to get the final score. Unfortunately, Leron Black wasn’t much of a factor in this one. After grabbing the first two rebounds of the game, Black ran into foul trouble and couldn’t find a rhythm, scoring 2 points and harnessing 3 boards in 8 foul-plagued minutes. Black’s a good athlete with a lot of potential – his two points came on a monster dunk – but he just hasn’t been able to put it together consistently this season. Maybe next year?
To the last point, Illinois played hard the whole game. They didn’t play particularly well, but they gave solid effort for 40 minutes. Yesterday, it was enough to win. Maybe the discontent swirling around the program will bring them together to play for each other and their coach, and good for them for every win they earn. But effort isn’t always enough in the Big Ten. Illinois continued to struggle on offense and press break. The substitution patterns were questionable again, as players making plays were removed according to a predetermined sub pattern. Lineups that looked likely to struggle, including one featuring Tate and Abrams in the two guard positions, did struggle. And as time wound down and the Illini needed to make free throws, they had their most reliable player and one of their top free throw shooters, Malcolm Hill, taking the ball out. He’d inbound to Te’Jon Lucas who, for all the skill he’s shown as a freshman, has yet to master the freebie. He went 3-7 from the line. Puzzling strategy that could have, but didn’t, come back to bite.
In the end, Illinois played hard and won on the road, which is always tough to do in conference. The guys and their coaches deserve credit for focusing this week and getting it done. There’s still a shot at the NIT, and maybe Illinois can find themselves late in the season, take advantage of the easier part of their schedule, and put a positive spin on a tough year.