IOWA CITY, IA – For the first time in a while, Illinois was playing in a game on Super Bowl Sunday that had significant meaning in the Big Ten race. They have their incredible month of January to thank for that.
After losing their opening game of 2020 to Michigan State, the Illini reeled off seven-straight wins to push their way to the top of the conference all by themselves by the end of the month. In four of those seven wins, the Illini captured the win by four points or less, showing the resolve in the final minutes to put their season on the right track.
At the start of February, however, Brad Underwood’s team couldn’t continue that narrative against No. 18 Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Instead of finishing strong, they watched their hosts pull away in the clutch.
Leading by one with 4:04 to go, the Hawkeyes raced would go on an 11-0 run as the Illini went cold on the offensive end. It would lead to a 72-65 win for Iowa that snaps Illinois’ seven-game winning streak and drops them into a tie for first place in the Big Ten with Michigan State.
It’s a far cry from the finishes they had against Wisconsin, Rutgers, Northwestern, Michigan, and Minnesota, where the Illini were typically coming up with hoops when they needed it in the final minutes. Following a three-pointer by Andrez Feliz that put them up by one with 4:04 to go, the Illini failed to score on six-straight possessions, missing four shots while turning the ball over twice.
Still, the Illini defense held strong, keeping the deficit to four until 38 seconds left, when Luke Garza hit a three-pointer to put Iowa up seven and the game out of reach. Only an Ayo Dosunmu three-pointer with two seconds left kept Illinois from being shutout in the final four minutes.
It was a letdown for Illinois after a spirited, physical game that stayed tight for most of the 40 minutes. Illinois held a one-point halftime lead and the teams traded the advantage for the majority of the second half, with Illinois opening up a four-point lead on a Feliz layup with 5:30 that added to his team-high 17 points. But the trio of Garza (25 points), CJ Fredrick (18 points), and Joe Wieskamp (18 points) proved too much down the stretch for the Illini, with the last player finishing off the game with the breakaway slam.
When the game ended, there was some jawing between Illinois and Iowa following a competitive game between two of the Big Ten’s best teams. Illinois was alone at the top of that group after January, but they’ve got company after they got off-script to start February.