On Friday, Illinois Coach John Groce told the media “when adversity hits you have to grind hard. You gotta grind.” After a spirited effort against No. 15 Iowa on Saturday, no one can question if the Fighting Illini are grinding hard.
After trailing by 21 points early on, Illinois rallied back to take a five point lead in the second half.
After failing to score in the first half, senior guard Roy Devyn Marble scored on an and-one drive after an Illinois turnover to take a 76-72 lead with 1:39 left. Iowa would escape with the 81-74 victory.
Illinois entered the game on a five day layoff riding a six game losing streak. The loss extended the streak to seven, and even though Groce said he’s “not into moral victories,” the term seems fitting for this game.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of our toughness and togetherness in a loss for the six years I’ve been a head coach,” Groce said. “We’ve gotta figure out how to continue to duplicate that type of toughness, that type of togetherness, that type of effort that we had there for last 30 minutes of the game, we have to continue to build on that moving forward.”
Iowa entered the game ranked 8th in the nation in scoring, 3rd in rebounding, and 15th in assists per game.
Illinois is almost the polar opposite, ranking 276th in scoring, 151st in rebounding, and only 15 teams in the nation have less assists per game. Early on, the disparity was on fully display.
Illinois missed 12 of their first 16 field goals as the Hawkeyes went on a 20-4 run.
The Illini looked like a team that hadn’t played for five days, failing to find any sort of rhythm on offense and playing sloppy will the ball.
The Hawkeyes were relentless in the passing lanes, causing nine first half turnovers.
Iowa sprinted out to a 34-13 with 7:34 left in the first half.
Credit the 16,618 fans in attendance, just like the Illini, they never quit.
Just when things were getting out of hand, Illinois ended the half on a 23-6 run.
As Illini junior guard Tracy Abrams put it, “our togetherness changed.”
Illinois finally started to come alive after junior Rayvonte Rice finally got on the board with a three-pointer.
Later on Rice jumped over two Hawkeye defenders to finish an athletic left-handed lay-in cutting it to a 36-26 game with 2:41 left in the half.
Illinois freshman guards Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn hit back to back three pointers as the Illini started to catch fire. On the next play Nunn missed a dunk in transition but drew free throws.
After trailing by 21 in the half, Illinois made 7 of their last 12 shots and were down 40-36 heading into the locker room.
The second half did not fail to live up to the excitement of the first half.
After Rice hit a three to bring Illinois within two at 49-47 with 15:30 left, both teams put on an offensive clinic.
After Rice missed two shots at the rim on the next possession, senior forward Jon Ekey tipped the ball in to tie it at 49-49.
On the other end, 6’3” Nunn rejected 6’8” Jarrod Uthoff at the rim, pinning the ball up against the glass.
The two teams went back and forth trading buckets, with Illinois senior Joseph Bertrand diving out of bounds onto a laptop going after a loose ball—maybe that play was the best illustration of this game for both teams.
A three pointer from Abrams gave Illinois their first lead since 2-0. After a Rice lay-in from an Abrams feed, the Illini took their biggest lead at 66-61 with 9:02 left.
Amidst a seven game losing streak, Abrams remained positive.
“It always hurts to lose, but at the same time, you can’t keep worrying about the past that’s over,” Abrams said. “Gotta focus on what we can do to get better and execute more.”
In the end, Illinois couldn’t overcome their mistakes. The Illini turned it over 12 times, including during several key plays down the stretch. Iowa outrebounded Illinois 41-28, including 15-8 on the offensive glass.
Hawkeye big man Gabriel Olaseni scored 15 points and grabbed 12 boards, including six offensive rebounds.
Marble scored 17 points after failing to register a point in the first half.
The win was Iowa’s first on the road against Illinois since 1999.
Even though moral victories may not be his thing, winning isn’t everything to Groce.
“I don’t ever go in front of my team and say this is a must win, or we have to win,” Groce said. “I’m concerned with, hey are we doing the right things, are we playing the right way, are we executing, are we controlling the things we can control, are we making fewer mistakes, do we play together, are we continuing to fight, and then the other stuff can take care of itself.”