By Shawn Gibbs
NEW YORK – Thirty-four seconds.
That was the miniscule amount of time that the Iowa’s men’s basketball team didn’t either lead or were tied during Wednesday's game against Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
The Fighting Illini made a comeback at the end, but Iowa held on for a 96-87 victory, earning its first win in the conference tournament since 2013 and its third victory in the tournament under head coach Fran McCaffery.
In a season where the Hawkeyes often found themselves on the wrong end of scoring spurts, they overcame that problem on Wednesday and then withstood Illinois' comeback to improve to 14-18 on the season.
No. 12 seed Iowa led by as many as 12 points in the first half and was leading by eight points with 7 minutes, 47 seconds remaining in the first half when sophomore point guard Jordan Bohannon picked up his second foul and went to the bench.
“It was frustrating for me because I got two quick fouls and I just want to be out there with the guys and try to compete as much as possible,” Bohannon said.
Despite his foul problems, Bohannon still made five 3-point baskets and scored 25 points for the second game in a row. It was his eighth 20-point game of the season and his ninth game with five or more 3-pointers this season.
The Hawkeyes held No. 13 seed Illinois to just six fast-break points, which is in contrast to the regular season when Iowa struggled to stop opposing offenses in transition.
"We did a really good job of getting back after committing turnovers or missed shots," Bohannon said. "We were just really communicating tonight and that’s what it takes to beat a good team."
The Fighting Illini trimmed the deficit to 38-36 just 90 seconds into the second half before Iowa used a 14-4 run to push its lead to 52-40 with 16:27 left. Junior forward Nichoals Baer made a 3-point basket to expand Iowa's lead to 57-44 with 14:22 to play.
Both teams were aggressive on defense, sometimes, too aggressive judging from the 49 fouls that were called in the game, including 30 by Illinois.
"This was a very physical game and that's what tournament play is," McCaffery said. "Once you get to this point in the season, everyone is fighting."
Iowa took advantage of the physical play by making 34-of-41 free-throw attempts, while Illinois was just 9-of-12 from the charity stripe.
Center Luka Garza continued his scintillating finish to his freshman campaign by scoring 20 points and grabbing eight rebounds. His biggest rebound came on the offensive glass near the end of the game when Illinois was trying to rally.
Junior forward Ahmad Wagner also grabbed a key offensive rebound in the second half and then fed Bohannon for a 3-point basket that pushed the lead to 68-61 with slightly less than 10 minutes left to play. Illinois had pulled to within 63-61 shortly before Wagner's momentum-changing rebound.
The much shorter Illini had no answer for Iowa on the boards where the Hawkeyes had a 40-to-20 advantage.
“That was part of the game plan, we knew based on our first matchup with them that we could get to the glass and hurt them,” said the 6-foot-11 Garza.
Sophomore forward Tyler Cook added 19 points and five rebounds, and made 7-of-10 free throws.
The mindset of the Iowa players is to “forget the past” and set out on the monumental task of winning five games in five days, a tall order for any team. The players are determined to not let fatigue become a problem.
“That’s been something on my mind (fatigue) coming into this tournament," Cook said. "Coach has been done a really good job of pacing me throughout the season, but conditioning has never been a problem with me."
Illinois forward Kipper Nichols led all scorers with 31 points, making 10-of-17 field-goal attempts, including five 3-pointers. Illinois had four players reach double figures, while Iowa had three.
Up next for the Hawkeyes is a Michigan team that defeated Iowa twice during the regular season, most recently by 15 points in Ann Arbor on Valentine’s Day. Thursday's game will start at appropximately 1:30 p.m. and will be televised by the Big Ten Network.
“They’re a great team with a lot of three point shooters," Garza said of Michigan. "We need to get to the corners on defense and execute the game plan the coaches give us."
With Wednesday's victory, Iowa avoided having its season end in February for the first time since 1938 when Nile Kinnick was a junior at Iowa. It also marked the first time this season that Iowa has defeated a Big Ten opponent in back-to-back games.
Iowa defeated Northwestern 77-70 in the regular-season finale last Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
McCaffery was pleased with his team's overall effort on Wednesday. But he also knows that Michigan will present a much tougher challenge.
“We have to play better," McCaffery said. "I know that sounds a little simplistic, but we have to be a little bit better everywhere."
For one night, though, in the Big Apple, one could argue that a consistently inconsistent Iowa team showed the resolve and focus needed to reverse some of the trends that has plagued it this season.
The challenge now is to keep it going.
Iowa is trying to become the first Big Ten team to win five games in five days at the conference tournament and just the second overall. Connecticut won five games in five days to win the Big East Tournament in 2011.
It's one down for the Hawkeyes at this stage and four to go.