INDIANAPOLIS — Matt Gatens hardly could contain his excitement.
The Iowa senior, mired so long in losing upon losing, clenched his fists and let out a yell in celebration as Aaron White corralled the final rebound. The eighth-seeded Hawkeyes won their first Big Ten Tournament game since 2006 with a 64-61 win against No. 9 seed Illinois on Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“It’s gratifying to finally get one,” Gatens said. “Especially the way we got it. Just battling, the whole 40 minutes coming back from down seven. It really felt good.”
Iowa (17-15) faces top-seeded Michigan State (24-7) at 11 a.m. Friday in a tournament quarterfinal.
The Hawkeyes trailed 44-37 with 14 minutes left in the game. Gatens had just missed an 3-point attempt from the corner but rallied on the next possession with a 3-pointer to close the gap to four points.
Gatens kept the pressure up when he intercepted an Illinois pass at the mid-court and sprinted to the hoop for a one-handed dunk to bring Iowa within 44-42.
“Down seven, you need to make something happen,” Gatens said. “I think I just missed the 3, and I came off, got a good look. Bryce found me in the corner on that one. And we just needed something to happen.
“I found a good spot to get a steal there and a quick bucket and just in the timeout, just trying to keep guys being aggressive and believing.”
Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery called that sequence the “pivotal piece right there.”
“That was the pivotal part of the game,” McCaffery said. “They’re up seven. Seven can go to 11 quick. Or seven can go to one or two. And that changes everything for the rest of the game.”
Illinois Coach Bruce Weber called a timeout to stem the Hawkeyes’ momentum, and Joseph Bertrand scored seven seconds later to boost Illinois’ lead to 46-42. But the boost was only temporary for the Illini (17-15).
Iowa went on a 15-4 run, sparked in part by freshman Aaron White, who scored seven of those points. Gatens put Iowa up 57-50 on a jumper with 9:17 left in the game. Then the Hawkeyes had to hold on.
Iowa scored just seven more points the rest of the way, and all came from the free-throw line. Iowa missed its last 10 shots from the field and barely held on for the win. The Hawkeyes led 62-56 with 37.5 seconds left after Gatens hit a pair of free throws. Bertrand rebounded a D.J. Richardson miss and scored inside to cut Iowa’s lead to 62-58.
White was fouled one second later, and he missed the front end of a one-and-one. Bertrand was open at the top of the key and drilled a 3-pointer to move Illinois within 62-61 with 16 seconds left.
Gatens, who scored a game-high 20 points, once again had to save the day for Iowa. Cartwright moved up the baseline and found Gatens open. Two Illini defenders converged on Gatens but did not foul him. Gatens instead drove the ball up the court and worked off six seconds before he was fouled hard by Bertrand.
“When he got it to me, you’re expecting to get fouled right away,” Gatens said. “I think there was like 16 on the clock. They tried a trap, and I just split it. And at that point, I wanted to get up the court and waste as much clock as I could.
“Those last minutes seemed to take forever, and you just want to run them out, but they came from behind and got me and it was a good find by Bryce.”
After Gatens’ free throws, Iowa withstood a last-second 3-point attempt from Richardson. White sealed the victory with his rebound.
It was a win Gatens savored in part because of the team’s struggles against Illinois and the Big Ten Tournament. Iowa had lost a record seven straight to Illinois in the 104-year-old series and had a five-game losing tournament skid.
“I don’t want to go home,” Gatens said. “I want to keep playing. I don’t want to take this uniform off. And I think all the guys up here and in the locker room feel the same way. Personally, I haven’t been past this first day. Feels good to get past it, but you gotta get over that and go and get the next one now.”
Maniscalco 1-5 0-0 3, Richardson 4-11 0-0 11, Bertrand 5-8 0-0 11, Paul 2-11 0-0 4, Leonard 9-11 0-0 18, Abrams 1-4 0-0 3, Egwu 1-3 0-0 2, Griffey 4-9 0-0 9. Totals 27-62 0-0 61.<
Basabe 3-4 1-2 7, Oglesby 3-8 0-0 8, Marble 2-6 0-1 5, Gatens 7-12 4-4 20, McCabe 1-8 3-4 5, Brommer 0-1 1-2 1, Cartwright 2-7 1-2 5, May 0-2 0-0 0, White 5-9 2-4 13. Totals 23-57 12-19 64.<
Halftime_Illinois 31-27. 3-Point Goals_Illinois 7-26 (Richardson 3-9, Bertrand 1-2, Maniscalco 1-3, Abrams 1-3, Griffey 1-5, Paul 0-4), Iowa 6-19 (Oglesby 2-4, Gatens 2-5, Marble 1-2, White 1-3, Cartwright 0-1, McCabe 0-4). Fouled Out_Griffey. Rebounds_Illinois 35 (Griffey, Leonard, Richardson 6), Iowa 39 (White 9). Assists_Illinois 18 (Abrams, Paul 4), Iowa 15 (Cartwright 7). Total Fouls_Illinois 13, Iowa 10. A_NA.
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