Illinois did everything to win on Thursday night, just not at the right time. Their inopportune play dropped them to 0-5 in conference play as Iowa picked up its first Big Ten win, 104-97.
Timing was off was for Illinois (10-8, 0-5) even before the tip. The flu had plagued the team since before the Minnesota game a week previous, and it stubbornly lingered and forced Mark Smith from the starting lineup. Likewise, Te’Jon Lucas sat courtside in street clothes during warm-up, suspended for a violation of team rules. On a night when many teammates were less than 100%, Lucas could have timed his absence better.
But when the ball was tipped, Illinois could hardly put a foot wrong. In the opening 10 minutes the hosts extended a lead of 32-16, then hitting a high of 20 points, 49-29, at 3:53 after a Trent Frazier three. Illinois’s win probability (pictured below, from ESPN) would hit 97% after that, its highest of the evening. It would steadily fall afterward.
Much of the Illini offense was fueled by Iowa turnovers, as the Illini put up 16 points on 11 turnovers in the first half. More impressive, though, was Illinois’s three point shooting, which stood at an unreal 9/15 (60%) at half. The Illini offense was good for 1.4 points per possession in the half, with Kipper Nichols was again clutch from the bench, racking up double-digit scoring early on, scoring 11 after 12 minutes of game time. Nichols output could have been more spaced out, though, as he would only score 2 more points before fouling out with 5 seconds left in regulation.
The Illinois defense then chose a bad time to go missing, allowing Iowa 26 points over the final 10 minutes of the first half and letting them get to the foul line too often. The Hawkeyes were 14/14 from the charity stripe in the first half, preventing the Illini from putting the game on ice early. Still, at halftime the Illini led 54-41, but they chose the wrong half to put up an outrageous number.
Poor defense carried into the second half, and Iowa cut the lead to 3 points with a 10-0 run after just more than 2 minutes played. After averaging a pedestrian 1.05 points per possession in the first half, Iowa took advantage of Illinois’s lax defense to the tune of 1.485 points per possession in the second. After halftime, Illinois only forced 6 additional turnovers from Iowa. Leron Black did his best to keep the game within Illinois’s grasp, with 8 points in the first 8 minutes of the half, but Iowa tied the game at 12:06.
Illinois was great against Iowa, but not when it counted.