Iowa blew a 21-point first half lead, then came back from down five points in the second half, getting timely free throw shooting down the stretch to secure an 81-74 win over the Illinois Fighting Illini Saturday night. The Hawkeyes were led by 17 second-half points from Roy Devyn Marble and a double-double from backup center Gabriel Olaseni.
With 7:34 left in the first half, Adam Woodbury was fouled by Joseph Bertrand. He made both free throws, and Iowa was up 34-13. It looked to all the world like Iowa was going to take out its frustration from this week's loss to Michigan State on the hapless Illini.
And then came the drought.
The Hawkeyes made just six free throws for the rest of the half, missed the last four field goal attempts and turned the ball over five times. Illinois, on the other hand, found a hole in Iowa's defensive strategy. The Illini utilized the ball screen, punishing Iowa's usual hedge play by rolling the screener into the passing lane between the two defenders. If Iowa backed off the hedge, the Illinois guards were too fast for Iowa's defenders. If Iowa left the hedge in place, the screener rolled open. And if Iowa's hedge defender was able to catch up with the screener, Illinois flashed a wing and let the screener block the defender out of the lane, allowing for a second drive or open jump shot. Iowa tried to counter with a 2-3 zone, but Illinois guards continued to get into the lane with ease, and collapsing forwards were left open for buckets around the rim.
The result: With just over eight minutes to go in the game, Illinois was up five and shooting at a 60 percent effective rate, nearly fourteen points above their season average. Iowa got a mini-run, with Marble -- who was scoreless in the first half but took over late -- knocking down a three-point bucket and Olaseni laying another in to tie the game. From there, the Illini's chariot turned into a pumpkin. Illinois went just 1/10 from the field in the last seven minutes. Iowa made 4/6 over the same period, and dropped in 7/10 free throw attempts down the stretch. That was the game. Iowa's tendencies -- to have one or more of its best scorers disappear for entire halves, to go on long stretches where free throws are the only offense, to lose focus with a big lead -- were all on display here, and yet the Hawkeyes were able to overcome that with two longtime late-game bugaboos.
The question remains: Is that a step in the right direction? For two years now, we've been wondering what it takes for Fran McCaffery to call a timeout and stop momentum, especially on the road. We saw nothing of the sort tonight. We saw Illinois go to the same well repeatedly, and no real tactical answer to the problem from Iowa. And, yes, we saw The Drought again.
Those questions will remain tomorrow. For tonight, we can take a deep breath and enjoy Iowa's first win in Champaign since 1999, one made sweeter by the fact that it almost slipped away.