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IOWA 61, ILLINOIS 56: HAWKEYES HANG ON FOR SENIOR NIGHT WIN

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Iowa ends an up-and-down regular season on a winning note.

note: this picture is from a different game
note: this picture is from a different game
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa's NCAA Tournament aspirations took a significant blow when they lost at Penn State earlier in the week, so there wasn't quite as much riding on Saturday's Senior Night regular season finale for the Hawkeyes as we expected a week ago.  Iowa's at-large aspirations became exceedingly tenuous after that loss -- at this point Iowa likely needs a semi-miraculous run in the Big Ten Tournament to make it back to the NCAA Tournament.  So the game with Illinois was mainly about pride and sending out this senior class with a win.  And while it wasn't pretty, they managed to do just that in a 61-56 win over the Illini.

Iowa raced out to a 19-12 lead after the first quarter, led 33-23 at the half, and had a 55-37 lead going into the fourth quarter. And it's a good thing that they had built up that sizable lead because the fourth quarter did not go well for Iowa (again).  The Illini outscored Iowa by a staggering 19-6 margin in the final period, chopping Iowa's 18-point lead down to just one point with a minute to go (57-56).  Fortunately, Iowa got a Megan Gustafson jumper and a pair of free throws by Chase Coley to close things out and they were able to hang on for the lead.  But this was another disastrous fourth quarter for Iowa and without the huge lead they had built up through three quarters, this could have been another painful loss. Iowa shot 2/10 in the fourth quarter and had five turnovers that led to 11 Illinois points.  For the game, Iowa had 15 turnovers that led to 24 Illinois points.  Turnovers and lousy fourth quarters have been recurrent problems for Iowa the entire season, so it was probably fitting that they turned up in the regular season finale.  Luckily they didn't cost Iowa a win this time.

Megan Gustafson led Iowa with yet another double-double (16 points on 8/11 shooting and 10 rebounds), but she led a balanced Hawkeye scoring attack.  Three over Iowa players scored in double figures -- Whitney Jennings had 14 points (on 5/14 shooting, 4/10 from beyond the arc), Ally Disterhoft had 13 points (on 5/12 shooting), and Chase Coley had 10 points (on 3/7 shooting). As you can see, Iowa struggled mightily to make baskets in this game -- they shot just 42.1% overall and non-Gustafson shooters really struggled, making just 34.7% of their attempts.  Tania Davis (6 assists) and Alexa Kastanek (7 assists) did do well in the distribution aspect of the game.

Only one of the three seniors on this team saw action in Saturday's game, Kali Paschel, who grabbed a pair of rebounds in her 7 minutes of action. Last year's senior class was one of the most talented and productive classes in the history of Iowa basketball.  This year's class didn't reach the heights of that group, in large part because of injuries as Hawkeye Sports noted. Nicole Smith has had six (!) knee surgeries during her basketball career and Claire Till had knee surgery (not her first) last week. While this class may not have been hugely productive on the court, they served as valuable mentors and practice partners to Iowa's underclassmen. Congratulations to them on their Hawkeye careers.

Their careers -- and Iowa's season as a whole -- has at least one more game left in it, though.  The win over Iowa put Iowa at 18-12 overall, 8-10 in conference play, good for a tie for 9th in the conference with Rutgers.  Iowa beat Rutgers head-to-head earlier this season, though, giving them the #9 seed in the Big Ten Tournament this week.

Iowa will play the #8 seed Michigan at 11 AM CT on Thursday, March 3 in Indianapolis, Ind.  Iowa split the two regular season contests with Michigan, losing 82-75 in Ann Arbor, but rebounding with an 85-69 over the Wolverines in Iowa City late last month.  If Iowa gets by Michigan, they'll face #1 seed Maryland at 11 AM CT on Friday, March 4. The Terps blasted Iowa, 76-56, when these teams played earlier this season.  That's not an easy path... but there's really no such thing as an easy path for a #9 seed.  Best of luck to the Hawkeyes in Indianapolis this weekend -- let's hope we see their best basketball of the season in the tournament.