CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With all the chaos and carnage in Big Ten basketball over the last week, Iowa’s rocket ride to a 34-13 lead over Illinois Saturday night felt like an unworldly vision.
When Northwestern toppled Wisconsin and Minnesota on the road and Penn State did likewise to Ohio State in a four-day span, what was left to believe? The thought that a first-division, nationally ranked Iowa team would exit State Farm Center with its first win here this millennium was taken for granted by no one, even if the home team entered with a 6-game losing streak.
Yet, the Hawkeyes opened the game with 12-plus minutes of slicing, dicing and splicing the Illini and built a lead larger than any building in downtown Champaign. In other words, they acted like a first-division Big Ten team and national Top 25 squad.
But then it got very slippery for Iowa. It was a veritable wintry mix of frozen offense in the final 7:30 of the first half and snowed-under defense by Illini dribble-penetration for the first 11 minutes of the second half.
It may still be way too early in this season for defining moments, but the last nine minutes may be looked back upon as a pivotal point in Iowa’s season. It went back to playing defense, allowing just one hoop in that time. A 66-61 deficit became a hard-fought, hard-earned 81-74 victory by a team that may have gotten mentally harder with the result.
“We did what we had to do,” Iowa forward Aaron White said. “We needed to win the game.
“There’s no other explanation. We had to.”
Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery bemoaned what he called a lack of toughness from his players after their overtime home loss to Michigan State last Tuesday.
“It’s probably one of the worst things you can call an athlete,” White said. “I understand why he called us that, so I didn’t take it like he was ripping on us, but it’s one of the worst things you can get called as a basketball player, so you’ve just got to really bear down and play the caliber we’re supposed to be.”
It wasn’t 40 minutes of high-caliber, but it was enough minutes. It was the last nine minutes on the road in a loud arena against a team seeing daylight for the first time in almost a month.
“It’s huge,” McCaffery said.
And it took toughness. It took putting up red lights on defense after the Illini had seen little but green for a long stretch.
It took Devyn Marble playing like a first-team All-Big Ten player with all of his 17 points after halftime.
It took backup center Gabe Olaseni, who keeps evolving into something special in his junior season. He had career-highs of 15 points and 12 rebounds. He got all those points on just five field goal tries, making him the most efficient Englishman since James Bond.
“Aaron White said he was proud of me, and Josh Oglesby said something, only more aggressively,” Olaseni said, smiling. “I wouldn’t repeat what he said.”
White elegantly summarized it: “He played his butt off.”
Former Big Ten doormats have been stepping on the sneakers of teams that were once ranked in the Top 5 this year. But Iowa (6-3 in the league) didn’t make a misstep Saturday when stumbling looked almost inevitable midway through the second half.
McCaffery was right. It was huge.
McCaffery: “You can look at it from a lot of different angles. You don’t want to lose two in a row, and we haven’t done that this year.”
“Two we lost (against Michigan and Michigan State), and we came back on won on the road.”
“Every time you get a win it puts you in a better position, obviously, to continue to contend for a championship and also it puts you in a better place for an NCAA bid.”
“I’m just looking at Ohio State. Ohio State comes in on Tuesday and we play Ohio State. They got a big road win today (at Wisconsin), a very good team.”
“I think you look and say three road wins, 6-3, any coach would have to be pleased in this league. … I’m very respectful of what our guys have done and how they’ve competed and how they’ve come back from losses and how they’ve played on the road. From that standpoint, you could say I’m pleased.”
White (on Olaseni): “When he first came in he made small mistakes. He wasn’t used to the pace, he wasn’t used to all of it. Now all of a sudden he’s playing down the stretch in a big road win. I’m really happy for him.
“I think he’s very special with his skill set. With his size, his athleticism, it’s top-notch. He’s pretty impressive in that matter. He’s got a special skill set.”
“Northwestern’s surprising people, Wisconsin’s losing at home, Ohio State’s not playing their best basketball. As a whole it’s kind of a jammed pack after us (in the Big Ten standings). So I kind of like where we’ve kind of separated ourselves, but we’re also chasing, obviously, the two Michigan teams. … But we’ll get both those teams again.”
Olaseni: “The good thing about this team is it could be anyone on any given night. Tonight just happened to be my night. I’m just thankful we got the ‘W.’ In terms of the plays I made, I’m just trying to stay active, running the floor, which I do for offensive boards. Just sticking to do what I do, basically.”
“I just try to focus on four things: Running the floor every time, rebounding, playing good defense, and just finishing around the rim effectively. If I do those four things, I think I play pretty good games.”