BY JIM COTTER firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — CHAMPAIGN — The 2013-14 Big Ten basketball season can be summed up in one word: wacky.
It got a little bit wackier on Saturday night.
The Iowa Hawkeyes blew a 21-point advantage in the first half, but hung on to defeat the Fighting Illini 81-74 on Saturday evening at the State Farm Center in Champaign.
The loss extended the Illini’s current losing streak to seven games, and also, some soul searching for head coach John Groce.
“This one stings just as much as any of them, but I liked the way the team responded once we got down by 21,” Groce said. “At the end of the day, I can live with that one, because they literally fought their tails off tonight”.
The Illini appeared clueless for much of the first half, as they trailed 34-13 with 7 minutes, 34 seconds left on the clock.
If it could go wrong for the Illini in the first 13 minutes of play, it pretty much did, as they looked listless and confused on both ends of the floor.
To make matters worse, the Hawkeyes were in the bonus for a good portion of the half as well, which gave them an added advantage.
But then, all of a sudden, things started to click and the Illini began slowly chipping away at the lead.
Over the course of the final seven minutes of the half, the Illini went on a 23-6 run to trail 40-36 going into the halftime locker room, and thus, gained some much needed momentum heading into the second half of the game.
“I was really happy with our defense, especially the last five minutes of the game”, Iowa head coach Fran McCaffrey said. “It was a very unique game to say the least, and they (Illinois) struggled to make a shot for a long period of the first half.
“Illinois did a good job of getting themselves back in the game, and some things that we were doing well early in the game wasn’t working for the remainder of the half.”
Roy Devyn Marble, the Hawkeyes’ talented forward, was held scoreless in the first half, but exploded for 17 points in the second half — essentially carrying his team on his shoulders.
Gabriel Olaseni notched a double-double, scoring 15 points and grabbing 12 rebounds, both career highs for the junior.
Joseph Bertrand led the Illini with 20 points, while Rayvonte Rice added 13. But, in the end, it wasn’t enough to get the Illini over the hill and end their losing streak.
“We had a few practices the past week with the intensity of tonight’s game,” Bertrand said.
“We let them have a couple of and ones down the stretch, and even though the game didn’t go our way in the end, I’m extremely proud of the guys and their effort tonight,” Groce said.
The Illini took a 66-61 lead with just over 10 minutes remaining in the game, but couldn’t ride the wave of momentum to the victory.
“I think they got us in transition late,” Groce said.
Tracy Abrams, bothered by a back issue during the Indiana game last Sunday, returned to form, scoring 11 points, and thought his team’s performance was admirable, even though they didn’t come out on top.
“I was really pleased with the effort tonight, and during this losing streak, the team is coming together and getting closer”, Abrams said after the game. “We need to find a way to come together and make everything click, and regain some of this success that we had earlier in the season”, Abrams continued.
Groce was a little critical of the fans tonight, especially early in the game when the Illini fell behind by double figures.
“Frankly it ticked me off,” Groce said. “You can criticize me, but don’t touch my guys.”
With the loss, Illinois falls to 13-9 overall and drops to 2-7 in the Big Ten, while Iowa improves to 17-5 overall and continues to stay near the top of the conference standings at 6-3.
Iowa outrebounded the Illini by a 41-28 margin, including some key offensive boards in the final few minutes to seal its first win in Champaign since 1999.
When asked if this might open the door for some younger players to see more double digit minutes in the near future, Groce responded by saying “anytime you are struggling from a win-loss standpoint, the fingers begin to be pointed at the veterans. But, as I’ve said all along, players play players and we are constantly evaluating our team each and every day.”
The Illini will not have a lot of time to dwell on this current loss, as they are right back in action on Tuesday evening, when they welcome the Wisconsin Badgers to the State Farm Center. Wisconsin lost at home on Saturday to Ohio State 59-58, and come into the game with Illinois at 17-5 overall, but just 4-5 in the Big Ten.
The game on Tuesday night will be televised on the Big Ten Network, and can be heard on WDAN AM 1490 and WDNL 102.1 FM, as well as statewide on the Fighting Illini Sports Network.
Jim Cotter is a freelance writer for the Commercial-News, and can be reached for comment at email@example.com