CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Iowa's last two coaches before Fran McCaffery didn't win here. Neither did legions of great Iowa players of the past.
Assembly Hall was a House of 'Paign for the Iowa men's basketball team all these years. Now the arena has a new name, and Iowa brought some new game in its first visit.
The No. 15/12 Hawkeyes (17-5, 6-3 Big Ten) fought against a massive momentum swing, an intense environment and a five-point deficit to power past Illinois 81-74 at State Farm Center. The victory snapped Iowa's 11-game losing streak in Champaign and stemmed a run of 22 losses in 23 games. The last time Iowa won here was in 1999. But last night's win was less about the past and more about the present.
It also was about Iowa's mental toughness, an intangible earned through adversity. Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery called out his players for their lack of toughness after an overtime loss to Michigan State. Sunday night, he praised them for it.
"We're down five with eight and a half to go, I think I was really proud with how we played from that point forward," McCaffery said. "We got some stops, we executed our offense, we got some second shots, we made free throws, our defense finally got the point where we got the stops we needed."
At first it seemed too easy. The Hawkeyes drilled Illinois early in transition, building a 34-13 lead with 7:35 left. Iowa's offensive execution was crisp, almost perfect. Iowa assisted all five of its first baskets. The Hawkeyes scored 12 second-chance points. Then, the runs stopped and Illinois revved up.
The Illini (13-9, 2-7) stormed back, finishing the half on a 23-6 run. The teams traded baskets for the first 10 minutes of the second half. Illinois took its first lead on a Tracy Abrams 3-pointer. Baskets by Joseph Bertrand and Rayvonte Rice put the Illini up 66-61. Then Iowa forward Zach McCabe was whistled for an offensive foul. The Illini had the ball and called a timeout to avert a five-second call. McCaffery gathered his troops and put it on the line.
"He said, 'What's it going to be fellas?" Iowa center Gabe Olaseni said. "So he got us refocused. Then Aaron White was chirping, too. He was saying,'We have a lot of time left. We're going to win this game.' I think the conversations that happened during the timeout were big. It wasn't, 'We can't let this lead slip away. It wasn't, 'We can't lose this game.' It was, 'We're going to win and here's how we're going to do it.'
"When guys like Coach McCaffery, Devyn Marble and Aaron White are settling us down like that, those guys are our leaders and it settles everyone down."
Illinois' Jon Ekey missed the next shot, and White grabbed the rebound. Marble then stepped up with a 3-pointer on the next possession to cut the deficit to 66-64. Then Iowa's Melsahn Basabe corralled a steal from Rice, leading to a fast-break basket by Olaseni to knot up the game at 66-66.
Illinois retook the lead on four free throws from Rice, but Iowa rallied. The Hawkeyes pushed on a 10-2 run, culminating in a Marble three-point play with 1:39 left to lead 76-72. Ekey airballed a 3-point attempt on the next possession, and Iowa milked the clock. Josh Oglesby missed a 3-pointer, but Olaseni came up with a big offensive rebound. Iowa then sank five of its final six free throws for the win.
Olaseni finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds and none were bigger than his offensive rebound. He also drilled 9 of 10 free throws. Marble scored 17 points and White added 14.
After giving up the big lead, falling behind and facing the vaunted Orange Krush, White praised his teammates for their fortitude in the clutch.
"It says we have character," White said. "It shows that we don't accept losing. We don't accept bad things coming our way. We couldn't have played any better those first eight minutes, 10 tens. All the sudden it wasn't going our way, nothing was going our way. We couldn't get any stops. We didn't have a field goal; we were just making free throws. It just shows we can play against the odds, play against the crowd and get back to our game."
Iowa now has a new streak against the Illini -- three. That's the number of consecutive wins against their border rival.