CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It’s only fitting that the last Big Ten game of the season determined whether or not Illinois would finish among the top four teams in the conference — the first time in nearly a decade. With the win, the Illini also clinched a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament and await their matchup this Friday.
Illinois edged out Iowa in front of a sold-out State Farm Center on Senior Night, 78-76. Tyler Underwood, Kipper Nichols, Andres Feliz, and Samson Oladimeji were all honored for their time at Illinois, but more importantly, the Illini secured their best finish in the Big Ten since 2010-11.
“Just to feel that energy was great,” Nichols said. “There’s nothing like playing in this building night in and night out with the support of this great community.”
Intense. Physical. Action-packed. However, you want to describe it, Illinois/Iowa is quickly emerging as one of the best rivalries in the entire Big Ten.
“We don’t like each other,” Ayo Dosunmu said of the budding rivalry. “It’s as simple as that. We just don’t. They want to kill us, and we want to kill them.”
Dosunmu’s head coach Brad Underwood echoed his support for the showdown.
“I think rivalries, if you want to call it that, are awesome,” Underwood said. “They’re great for sports and college basketball. Those games become fun. They become more important to the fans and players. I love Fran [McCaffrey’s] staff.”
Both teams jumped out to quite a start with Kofi Cockburn kicking the scoring off for the Illini with a couple of SportsCenter Top-10 worthy alley-oops, but it was Iowa that led 20-13 at the first media timeout.
The Hawkeyes took advantage of Illinois’ struggles guarding the ball screen with seven players finding themselves in the scoring column before the 10-minute mark of the first half. A late field goal drought of over six minutes and a couple surprising contributions from the likes of Da’Monte Williams (nine points) and Nichols (10 points, 3-3 FG, 4-4 FT) allowed Illinois to tie things back up at 33.
“Kipper, on his Senior Night, played his best game of the year,” Underwood said. “I couldn’t be prouder of him.”
Then, with less than two minutes remaining in the half, a skirmish resulted in two double technicals that were assessed to Williams, Trent Frazier, and Iowa’s Connor McCaffrey and CJ Frederick. And after all that, neither team could separate from the other with both squads heading to the locker room knotted at 41.
Illinois kept its foot on the gas and quickly mounted its largest lead of the game at 62-48 with runs of 12-2 and 9-0. Feliz stepped up when the Illini needed a spark, adding all 14 of his points in the second half.
Trailing by as many as 15 in the second period, the Hawkeyes pieced together a 10-2 run of their own, and with just under a minute to go, Illinois led by just two.
Right on cue, Ayo Dosunmu stepped up and hit the biggest shot of the game in what could be his final game at State Farm Center, giving Illinois a 78-74 lead with 31.1 seconds to go.
“Ayo’s different,” Underwood said of his point guard. “He lives for that. He lives to play with a chip on his shoulder. All Ayo does is work to prove people wrong. He spends a lot of time in the gym, maybe more than anyone I have ever coached.”
Luka Garza (28 points, eight rebounds) responded with a slam of his own to cut things back to two with 17.8 to go, and Dosunmu missed the front end of a one-and-one at the free throw line, giving Iowa one final possession to send the game to overtime or win. With 1.6 seconds left in the game and after an Iowa miss, the officials determined at the replay monitor that Iowa would retain possession.
Luka Garza couldn’t connect with a lob at the rim and the Illini escaped Senior Night with a 78-76 win.
“We’ve come a long way in terms of the growth of this program,” Underwood said. “I’m proud of us. We had as tough of a schedule throughout conference play as anyone could have. We withstood some ups and downs.”
- Ayo Dosunmu — 17 points, 7 rebounds, 8 assists
- Kofi Cockburn — 12 points, 8 rebounds
TWEET OF THE GAME
I would pay infinite money to watch Da’Monte Williams kick Connor McCaffrey’s ass— Matty (@matt1all) March 8, 2020
HE SAID IT
“This is what Illinois Basketball is to me. I’m the biggest advocate for student involvement. I hope some young kid wants to come to the University of Illinois because of something that happened today. Truly one of the best home courts in the country.” — Brad Underwood
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Ayo Dosunmu Kofi Cockburn pic.twitter.com/5rrohyEQrb— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) March 8, 2020
With the win, the Illini are off until Friday where the await the winner of No. 5 Iowa vs. No. 12 (Minnesota)/No. 13 (Northwestern) at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.
Tip-off is set for approximately 1:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network.