ICYMI: Illinois vs. Iowa
Feb. 2, 2014
By Lexi Shurilla, fightingillini.com staff writer
No. 15 Iowa 81, Illinois 74
"Our attitude and our effort today was championship level."
That's what Illinois head coach John Groce said after Saturday's 81-74 loss to No. 15 Iowa at State Farm Center. Trailing by 21 points midway through the first half, the Fighting Illini lived up to their name, rallying to play some of their best basketball of the season over the next 20 minutes to completely erase the deficit. However, the Hawkeyes took control down the stretch to hand the Illini their seventh straight defeat.
"That one stings," Groce said. "I don't think I've even been more proud of our toughness and togetherness in a loss in six years as a head coach. We're disappointed, we had our chances, a play or two here or there...but at the end of the day, as the coach of these guys, I can live with that one."
The ComebackWith seven and a half minutes left in the first half, Illinois was down 34-13 to the Hawkeyes, but a match was about to be lit under the Illini. A pair of Joseph Bertrand free throws got things started. Then came a Jon Ekey three-pointer with under six to play. Rayvonte Rice followed with a power drive to the basket. After a pair of Iowa free throws, Ekey took the ball to the hoop himself further slicing into the Illini deficit. The State Farm Center crowd was on its feet with 2:41 left in the first half, after a Rice lay-up brought Illinois back within 10, 36-26.
But it wasn't over yet, as a pair of Illini freshmen were about to get into the mix. Malcolm Hill got the Illinois bench to jump out of their seats with a three-pointer to bring Illinois within seven, 38-31, with just under two minutes to play. Iowa turned the ball over and then another freshman, Kendrick Nunn, nailed a three of his own, getting Illinois within four and shooting the roof off State Farm Center. Both Nunn and Hill added seven points off the bench.
Nunn nearly brought the house down with a thunderous dunk to close the half. Though he didn't convert, he was fouled on the play and finished off the half with a pair of free throws. In all, the Illini finished the first half on a 23-6 run over the final 7:34 to go into halftime trailing 40-36. More importantly though, the State Farm Center was as electric as it had been all season.
"Our togetherness changed," junior Tracy Abrams said of the Illini drive. "Guys were talking a little bit more, we understood that we had to keep fighting and keep grinding each possession."
"Those kids, they're fighters, they're fighting and they practiced really well all week," Groce said. "They're fun to be around, I love coaching them. Those kids are scratching and clawing right now. How many teams down 21, after playing through what they've been through the last couple weeks, would be able to come back against a top-25 team? Not very many."
Pulling AheadThe Illini faithful were fired up to start the second half, and with the students back from winter break and the Orange Krush returned to full force, the home crowd was definitely the sixth man.
"I thought the Orange Krush was tremendous," Groce said. "I thought they were great and gave the building energy. It was a good environment tonight, a good college basketball game, if you didn't care who won or lost. Unfortunately we care. It just didn't go our way tonight."
Bertrand started the second half right for the Illini with an alley-oop dunk from Nunn, making Illini fans jump sky high along with him. Bertrand finished with 20 points, shooting 70 percent from the field, and perfect from behind the arc and the free-throw line.
After trading baskets with the Hawkeyes for the next several minutes (the game was tied six times early in the second half), Illinois finally got over the hump with a three-pointer by Abrams (11 points) at the 10:18 mark, giving Illinois a 62-61 lead. The noise at State Farm Center was ear shattering as Illinois pushed the lead to 66-61 after a Rice layup with nine minutes left. The Illini later led 70-66, but Iowa closed the game on a 17-4 run, holding Illinois to just one field goal over the final nine minutes.
"I thought our guys really, really competed and played with a lot of toughness, a lot of togetherness, a lot of grit," Groce said. "I thought they fought for everything in the game. I told them in the locker room after the game, I'm proud of them, I love them and we're going to get up tomorrow and we'll figure out how to continue to duplicate that type of effort we had there for the last 30 minutes of the game."