1.† Toughness became an asset. Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery labeled his squad as soft after a two-point overtime loss to Michigan State last week.
That stuck with his players in the days leading into their game at Illinois on Saturday. Aaron White bristled at McCaffery's suggestion as did a number of his teammates. But in the aftermath of an 81-74 win at State Farm Center --† a game where Iowa blew a 21-point lead but rallied from a five-point deficit -- McCaffery's "mental toughness" quote appeared vital and effective.
"That's probably one of the worst things you can call an athlete," White said. "I understand why he called us that; I didn't take it like he was ripping on us. It's one of the worst things you can be called as a basketball player. You've just got to bear down."
It would be naive to think Illinois wouldn't respond being down 21 points to Iowa at home. The Illini are too proud, too desperate and too talented to allow Iowa to boat-race them in that environment. But Illinois came back so quickly it was like a tidal wave.
Foul trouble sent Aaron White, Adam Woodbury, Zach McCabe, Devyn Marble and Josh Oglesby to the bench. Coach Fran McCaffery sat them all -- as usual -- and Illinois outscored the Hawkeyes 23-6 in the first half's final 5 minutes, 48 seconds.
The teams traded baskets for most of the second half. The score was tied eight times after halftime with a pair of lead changes. The Illini took a 66-61 lead on a Rayvonte Rice basket with 9:10 left. McCabe was hit with charging on the next possession and the Hawkeyes appeared to fade as they have a few times this year and always in Champaign.
Only this time it didn't happen.
Illinois bailed out Iowa on its next offensive possession. The Illini couldn't inbound the ball, so they called timeout. It allowed for the Hawkeyes to regroup and challenge one another. A missed Jon Ekey shot led to a Marble 3-pointer. Then a Melsahn Basabe steal on a trap defense turned into a Gabe Olaseni fast-break layup and a tie at 66-66.
Illinois retook the lead with four consecutive free throws, but Iowa burst through on a 15-4 run to clinch the game. Iowa scored on eight of its final nine possessions and only once did Illinois get even an offensive rebound in the late stretch.
Toughness, which was was in short supply in an overtime loss to Michigan State, was abundant for Iowa late at Illinois.
"It would have been easy for us (Saturday), when they came back the way they did to kind of fold up and go back home for two," McCaffery said. "If youíre going to be a team that contends in this league, youíd better be able to come and perform the way we did."
"It could have been easy for us to shut it down and die and this isnít our night," Marble said. "We could have very easily have done that. But weíre a good team, we feel that weíre one of the best teams in the country and weíre one of the best in this conference and weíve got to continue to play like that."
Fans have criticized Iowa's lack of toughness and clutch play in late losses to Iowa State, Villanova and Michigan State. But the Hawkeyes responded in comeback wins against Xavier, Ohio State and Minnesota. Although the deficit wasn't in double digits like in those victories, Iowa's feat may have been more impressive considering the surroundings and Illinois' comeback.
It was Iowaís first win Champaign since 1999, breaking an 11-game road losing streak. It also marked the third straight win for Iowa in the series, a first since a five-game Iowa win streak from 1986 through 1988.
"I think we responded to his challenge, but we still have a long ways to go," Iowa point guard Mike Gesell said. "Itís not perfect. We did blow a 20-point lead, but at the same time itís a very good ball club in a hostile environment and anytime you get a big-time road win in the Big Ten, itís good for your program."
2. Olaseni steps up big. Iowa center Gabe Olaseni is becoming more than a front-line backup. He has morphed into a budding superstar.
The new 'Big O' set personal bests in points (15) and rebounds (12) in the win. Olaseni, a 6-foot-10 junior, scored 11 points in the first half, including nine from the free-throw line. He made his great mark with six offensive boards, and none bigger than with the Hawkeyes nursing a four-point lead and a minute to go.
Josh Oglesby missed a 3-point attempt, but Olaseni battled for the board. He then dribbled it out of the paint and to the top of the key, where he passed it to Devyn Marble. Marble was fouled, sank two free throws and put Iowa up six on the possession.
"I donít know what my stats are; thatís really irrelevant," Olaseni said. "Just being out there on the floor with my teammates. I think the best thing was after the game when Aaron White said he was proud of me. Josh Oglesby saying the same thing a little bit more aggressively. I wonít repeat what he said, but ... that makes it worth it.
"Itís always good to be in a game late down the stretch. I think freshman year, the start of my sophomore year, coach wouldnít trust me in that situation. Iíve shown him what I can do."
Olaseni leads Iowa in offensive rebounds and ranks fourth in the Big Ten. He now has four double-doubles this year, including in two of the last three games. He averages 6.6 points and 5.4 rebounds a game. He has nearly as many offensive rebounds (58) and defensive boards (61).
"He gets better every day," Iowa guard Mike Gesell said. "Heís one of the hardest workers on the team, no doubt about it. Heís always trying to get better. Heís just a student of the game, and youíre going to see him continue to get better each and every game, and you still havenít seen the best of him."
"I try to break down the game," Olaseni said. "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 played a pretty good game."
3. Timeouts. Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery rarely calls timeout. He prefers the players work themselves through situations. Plus with media timeouts every four minutes, there's plenty of enough time for breaks.
But even McCaffery was caught in a dilemma Saturday when Iowa trailed 66-61 and nine minutes remained. He wanted to preserve the four he had after taking one late in the first half. But the game was teetering out of reach and he was mentally going back and forth.
"I donít call timeouts there. Sometimes I do. You never know," McCaffery said. "When you get down, I had the sense the game was going to go down like this. And all the sudden youíre trying to get the ball in bounds and theyíre switching and denying everything and you need timeouts. The possession arrow is theirís and youíre getting ready to get tied up, you need to be able to call timeout. If you donít like what you have, youíd better call timeout to change the play, run something else, get a sub in, whatever. I like to save them."
At that point, a timeout was necessary. Illinois was on a 7-0 run and the State Farm Center (former Assembly Hall) was rocking. Iowa, conversely, was reeling.
"To be honest with you, Scott, I was thinking exactly what you were thinking," McCaffery said. "The one time I looked up and it was 8:50-something and itís like, 'Well, in 59 seconds thereís going to be a media. Do I really want to burn one here?' Then of course they score and I say I should have taken it. You go through that."
Illinois burned a timeout to help Iowa in that situation. Iowa pressed on an out-of-bounds play, and the Illini called timeout to avoid getting docked for a five-second call. The Hawkeyes regrouped, secured a rebound, scored five consecutive points and won the game.
Extra point: Winning in Champaign. Iowa fans know better than to ever expect a win at Illinois, and Saturday was no different. But the way the team rallied impressed them as much as other observers.
Iowa had lost 11 straight and 22 of 23 entering the game. Before Saturday Iowa had lost 61 of the previous 75 games in Champaign. When the Hawkeyes fell behind by five points with 9:01 left in the game, it appeared to be yet another defeat in front of Illinois' vaunted Orange Krush.
"To be honest I donít think last year we would have pulled this one out," Mike Gesell said. "I think it shows how much weíve grown as a team and we really did show some toughness. To blow a big lead we had and get down by five and be able to keep our composure in this arena, it was pretty loud in there.
"This is a really hostile environment. Youíve got the students right there on the floor, and it was a fun arena to play in. Iíve never been here before. So anytime you can get a win on the road in the Big Ten, itís big time."
Devyn Marble was 0-2 entering Saturday, and his father won just once in Champaign. Back in 1987, Iowa rallied from 22 points down to beat the Illini 91-88 in overtime. Before last year's 23-point turnaround against Gardner-Webb, that was the school's greatest rally. No one in their right mind would suggest last year's win was more meaningful than the epic comeback in 1987.
But Marble had nothing about the past on his mind Saturday. It was all about the present.
"I wanted to get some wins at other peopleís venues that I hadnít coming into this season," Marble said. "This is one I hadnít won at. I hadnít gotten too many opportunities; this is only my third time being here. It was my last time. I was glad to get that because I wanted it. What happened in the past Ö I donít know. I donít remember last we won, if we have or none of that. Iím getting out. I canít have any effect on previous players when they came in here."