Iowa 60, Illinois 53
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP)—Iowa ended its regular season feeling good and with an extra day off during next week’s Big Ten tournament.
Led by Adam Haluksa’s 21 points, the Hawkeyes knocked off Illinois 60-53 Saturday in the Big Ten finale for both teams.
The victory capped an improbable season for an Iowa team many predicted would finish near the league’s basement. Depending on the outcome of late games Saturday, the Hawkeyes (17-13, 9-7 Big Ten) will finish as high as a tie for fourth in the conference.
The win also makes Iowa a virtual lock for the fourth or fifth seed—and extra day of rest—in the tournament, which starts Thursday in Chicago.
Iowa coach Steve Alford said the team deserves credit for overcoming the season’s slow start and low expectations to finish victorious in six of the last nine games.
“I just think we’ve had a tremendous year,” said Alford, who won his second Big Ten tournament title at Iowa last year. “We’re looking forward to (the tournament). I know this team will fight.”
Despite the loss, Illinois (21-10, 9-7) finishes as one of the league’s hottest teams. The Illini won six of their last eight and enter the tournament with one of the nation’s stingiest defenses.
The Illini will finish in the tie for fourth, but their tournament seeding hinges on the outcomes of games involving Michigan, Indiana and Purdue.
Still, Illinois coach Bruce Weber said the loss was disappointing considering the way his team played in the final month.
“We’ve got to find a way to make some progress … or it’s going to be over,” Webber said. “I thought we beat ourselves with turnovers and fouls. I thought we played a little soft at times, and I told them that in the huddles.”
Even so, the game was a tight, physical, defensive battle throughout, with 11 ties and 12 lead changes.
Shaun Pruitt led the Illini with 20 points, tying a career best, and a game-high nine rebounds. Warren Carter scored 12 points and Rich McBride added nine, all on 3-pointers.
The Illini outrebounded the Hawkeyes 39-29, but failed to cash in offensively, shooting 36.4 percent from the field and 30 percent from behind the 3-point arc.
Illinois led most of the first half and seemed on the verge of taking control when Pruitt scored down low to give Illinois a 45-41 lead with 7:28 to go.
But the Hawkeyes answered immediately when Justin Johnson nailed a 3-pointer and Adam Haluska followed on the next possession by converting a 3-point play.
Haluska, playing in his final home game, also won the Big Ten scoring title, edging Wisconsin’s Alando Tucker by nearly a full point per game.
Iowa took control minutes later when Tony Freeman hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions, putting Iowa up 55-49 with 2:13 to go.
The Hawkeyes never let the Illini get any closer than two, and Mike Henderson’s 3-point play with 31 seconds left put Iowa up by five and put the game out of reach.
Iowa shot 42.2 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from behind the 3-point arc in beating Illinois for just the fourth time in the last 14 games.
Despite the strong finish, the Hawkeyes’ hopes for an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament were dashed in last week’s loss at Penn State. Now their only hope now is earning an outright bid by winning the tournament—a task made a little easier by beating Illinois and earning Thursday off.
“It’s three games in three days, rather than four,” Haluska said. “It’s a big momentum booster for our team. We played well as a team and we will be ready to go in the tournament.”