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Takeaways from Iowa’s close loss to No. 12 Illinois

The Iowa Hawkeyes faced a significant challenge on Saturday, traveling to play No. 12 Illinois in a late-season contest. This game had massive postseason consequences, with only four games remaining in the regular season,

The 16-11 Hawkeyes entered Saturday’s contest at Illinois on a hot streak. They knocked off both No. 21 Wisconsin and Michigan State in their past two games, bumping up to eighth in the Big Ten with an 8-8 conference record.

For a Hawkeyes team on the outside looking in of the NCAA Tournament bubble, playing 12th-ranked Illinois twice is a fantastic opportunity to propel their case for the tournament. That’s two potential Quad 1 wins, and wins against Northwestern and Penn State wouldn’t be too shabby either.

Iowa gave it their best effort, standing toe-to-toe with the Illini for most of the game. Unfortunately, they ran out of gas at the end, sputtering as the Illini took care of business in the 95-85 win. Here’s a look back at the takeaways from Iowa’s loss to Illinois.

An exciting start on offense

Feb 24, 2024; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini forward Amani Hansberry (35) tries to knock the ball from Iowa Hawkeyes forward Ladji Dembele (13) during the first half at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 24, 2024; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini forward Amani Hansberry (35) tries to knock the ball from Iowa Hawkeyes forward Ladji Dembele (13) during the first half at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

If you like offense, then the beginning portion of this game was definitely for you. These two teams can score, and they were trading buckets for the first half and a half. Rallied on by an Illini crowd ready for tournament basketball, both teams reached the 60-point mark ahead of the 10-minute mark in the second half. This was fun basketball.

The Ref Show

Feb 24, 2024; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini forward <a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/ncaab/players/153612/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Quincy Guerrier;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Quincy Guerrier</a> (13) gets a hand from the fans after a 95-85 win game over the Iowa Hawkeyes at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

I hope you know that first entry was just a set up for the ref show that was the second half. As soon as there was about 10 minutes left on the clock, the real star of the show decided to make a late entrance. The referees suddenly remembered that they were who the thousands in attendance came to see and made sure to frequently interject themselves into the game.

Both teams were in the bonus with a shade under eight minutes left in the game. Both teams shot over 20 free throw attempts.

Iowa came to fight in enemy territory

Feb 24, 2024; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini forward Amani Hansberry (35) tries to pull the ball from Iowa Hawkeyes forward Ladji Dembele (13) during the first half at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 24, 2024; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini forward Amani Hansberry (35) tries to pull the ball from Iowa Hawkeyes forward Ladji Dembele (13) during the first half at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The effort from the Hawkeyes tonight was certainly commendable. Against an extremely tough opponent in a raucous environment, Iowa went punch-for-punch with Illinois from the get go. Some nights Iowa’s offense gets out to a sluggish start, but they were on the ball early in this one. If it was earlier in the season, this would be a game to feel good about.

Josh Dix carrying the load on offense

Feb 24, 2024; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes guard Josh Dix (4) drives to the basket between Illinois Fighting Illini guard Justin Harmon (4) and Coleman Hawkins (33) during the second half at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 24, 2024; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes guard Josh Dix (4) drives to the basket between Illinois Fighting Illini guard Justin Harmon (4) and Coleman Hawkins (33) during the second half at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It was a big game for sophomore Josh Dix, keeping the Hawkeyes in the game with his fantastic scoring. The sophomore guard led Iowa with 20 points, making nine of his 15 shots. Dix has become a reliable scorer for the Hawkeyes as the season has progressed, especially from the mid-range area.

Iowa's defense was once again their downfall

Feb 24, 2024; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini forward Coleman Hawkins (33) drives past Iowa Hawkeyes forward Ben Krikke (23) during the first half at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 24, 2024; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini forward Coleman Hawkins (33) drives past Iowa Hawkeyes forward Ben Krikke (23) during the first half at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Once again it was just not nearly good enough on the defensive end by the Hawkeyes. 95 points surrendered. I mean that pretty much just tells the story right there doesn’t it? I’ve never seen a team so content to just let their opponent rain open 3-pointers against them like Fran McCaffery’s squad does. This isn’t just an issue with this team and their horrific zone specifically. Teams have always seemingly turned into the Golden State Warriors against the Hawkeyes.

That’s not even taking into account the inability to stop Coleman Hawkins tonight, a player averaging 12.3 points per game on the season who just put up 30 points against the Hawkeyes. How many times did we have to watch Ben Krikke fail to keep up with a much better athlete in Hawkins before a change was needed?

Just an unacceptable effort on defense from a team who has let themselves down on that side of the ball far too often. If and when Iowa doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament this year, just know that it wasn’t because of the inconsistent shooting, or the inexperience on offense, or even the refs being against them. It was that dang defense.

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Story originally appeared on Hawkeyes Wire