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Iowa falls to Illinois in Big Ten Tournament semifinal, 82-71

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Kofi Cockburn and the Illini were too much for the Hawks to handle — again

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Illinois vs Iowa Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Bad defense, bad turnover margin, and even worse officiating proved too much to overcome for the Iowa Hawkeyes as they fell, 82-71 to Illinois Fighting Illini in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal.

The story of the game for Illinois was the tremendous play from who else — Kofi Cockburn, and Ayo Dosunmu, who tallied 26 points and 18 points, 9 assists and 7 rebounds, respectively. Cockburn feasted underneath the basket from first buzzer to final, and Dosunmu showed why he was considered for National Player of the Year.

For Iowa, the game was a struggle in every conceivable way. The Illini got a double-digit lead, and it just proved too much for the Hawkeyes to overcome, for most of the first half and the entirety of the second. Garza logged 21 points and 12 rebounds, but it was a constant struggle, and most of his points came with Cockburn on the bench. Jordan Bohannon tallied 20 points on 5-13 from beyond the arc and logged 6 assists, but struggled mightily on defense. Joe Wieskamp added 12 points and 7 rebounds, but productive scoring ended there for the Hawks, with no other player scoring more than 4. The team had 12 turnovers, including 9 in the first half, that were responsible for a lot of Illinois’ transition points (and a lot of Iowa fan’s frustrations).

Illinois got out to an early 8-5 lead primarily at the hands of Cockburn, but the heroes of the night before, Garza and Bohannon, kept Iowa within striking distance as both teams felt each other out in their second matchup of the season, to the tune of an early 9-9 tie after an Illinois 3 was changed to a 2 after review during the first media timeout.

It seemed like it might be a back-and-forth game from there, but Illinois ripped off a 6-0 run in response, including a steal and dunk by Andre Curbelo that forced an early Iowa timeout as the Illini went up 19-14 with 13 minutes left in the half. But Cockburn’s dominance continued out of the timeout and the Illinois lead grew to 24-17 that felt a lot larger than the scoreboard made it seem.

One of the biggest problems was the complete lack of defense on Cockburn, who just feasted beneath the rim for much of the first half. When he finally took a seat, Iowa was able to adjust and cut into the lead, but as soon as he returned, Garza continued getting bodied underneath the rim. On the other end of the floor, Wieskamp started heating up, leading Iowa in scoring with 11 at the under-eight media timeout, his team down 31-26.

A Bohannon 3-pointer brought things within 3 for Iowa, but Illinois took advantage of better rebounding numbers and mounting Iowa turnovers, and suddenly a 3-point lead increased to 9 in what felt like a matter of seconds as Iowa went four minutes without scoring a point.

And yet, after Garza broke the seal with an and-1, along with a Bohannon 3, Iowa stayed in the game, cutting the lead down to 5 with 30 seconds to go, but Cockburn hitting the front end of a 1-1 after an Ogundele foul, and another Iowa turnover and foul on the other end of the floor took the Hawks into the half trailing 45-37.

The Illini started the second half with the ball and immediately picked up where they left off, getting the lead right back to double-digits, and it just grew from there. The 10-point lead quickly grew to 14, and it just looked like the Illini were on a different level than Iowa in every way. Try as they might (and the officiating certainly didn’t help here, just like it didn’t help for any part of the game, if we’re being honest), Iowa just couldn’t cut deep enough into the Illinois lead, even as the Illini went on an over three minute scoring drought. The damage had already been done.

The same situation unfolded on repeat for the rest of the game. Iowa cuts into the lead, Illinois responds in flashy fashion, frustrating Iowa players and fans alike. With 6 minutes left, Iowa cut the lead down to nine, but Garza was called for his fourth foul (“If he breathes on a guy it’s his 5th foul,” said the announcers, correctly), sending him to the bench.

Even a 5-point possession for Iowa barely deleted the Illinois lead...

...as Iowa couldn’t manage to convert its next possession. And yet, Iowa ripped off an 8—0 run and got the score to 74-69 with 3 minutes left in the game. But once again, the officials Bohannon turned the ball over, creating two easy points for Illinois, and that was that. The slim chance Iowa had to take back the game evaporated into thin air, and Illinois earned its spot in the tournament final with a double-digit win.

So what does this loss mean? Well, nothing really. It won’t impact seeding (for us at least, we were a 2 seed heading into this and I don’t see that changing), and it’s unlikely that this team will face Illinois again. But boy, it sure does ignite the rivalry — again. There’s certainly no team I hate more right now than this Illini squad and Brad Underwood.

I’m not going to predict Iowa’s tournament success based off this at all, but god, this was frustrating in every aspect. Let’s never think about it again.