By Pat Harty
CHICAGO – There is something about Illinois that seems to bring out the best in Iowa’s 3-point shooters as evidenced by Thursday’s game in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.
The Hawkeyes made 12-of-23 3-point baskets and cruised to an 83-62 victory over Illinois at the United Center.
Senior forward Nicholas Baer missed his first shot from 3-point range, but then made five in a row and finished with a game-high 17 points off the bench.
Iowa had seven players who made at least one 3-point basket in Thursday’s game and four players who scored in double figures.
Baer and his cohorts also finished with 25 assists on 31 made field goals.
The 25 assists were the most for Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament, topping 21 against Purdue in 2005.
"That's what you want to see, you want to see everybody get involved," Baer said. "That's something we're really proud of to play so unselfishly."
This marks the second time this season that Iowa has shredded Illinois from long distance. The first time came on Jan. 20th when Iowa made 15-of-21 3-point shots during a 95-71 victory at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
"That's a lot," said junior forward Ryan Kriener, who made one of his two attempts from 3-point range in Thursday's game. "They call the three ball the great equalizer for a lot of reasons. Any team that shoots the three well is really tough to beat."
The sixth-seeded Hawkeyes improved to 22-10 on the season and will face No. 3 seed Michigan in the quarterfinals at approximately 8:30 p.m. on Friday.
Iowa defeated Michigan 74-59 on Feb. 1 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It was the only time the two teams met during the regular season.
Iowa made 6-of-14 shots from 3-point range in that game, while the Wolverines struggled from behind the arc, making just 8-of-33 attempts.
"They're a really good team, a tough matchhup," Kriener said. "They're definitely going to come with an edge because we got them the last time."
Iowa nearly upset Michigan at last year's Big Ten Tournament, losing 77-71 in overtime. The Wolverines would go on to finish as the national runner-up to Villanova.
"They're one of the best teams in the country with a great coach," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Michigan and its head coach, John Beilein. "They have terrific players. I think they were ranked fifth when they came in when we played them the last time, so you recognize what they've accomplished to that point.
"And same thing tomorrow, recognize what they've accomplished to this point. It's an opportunity for us to play one of the best teams in the country in the Big Ten Tournament. We know they're going to defend. We know they're going to run that offense to perfection, and it's going to take a very good effort to beat them. We've just got to get back and prepare
Illinois lost six of its last eight games and finished the season with a 12-21 record under second-year coach Brad Underwood.
Iowa closed the regular season with four consecutive losses and the inability to make 3-point shots was largely to blame for the skid.
The Hawkeyes have a tendency to unravel on both ends of the floor when their 3-point shots aren’t falling. The offense often becomes stagnant, while the defense becomes a sieve.
However, that was never a problem in Thursday’s game because the Hawkeyes were on fire form 3-point range pretty much from start to finish.
Iowa made 6-of-13 attempts from 3-point range in the first half and also had nine assists on its 13 made field goals in the first half.
Thursday’s game was still relatively close until the Hawkeyes started making what seemed like one 3-point shot after another early in the second half. That helped to create space for Iowa's frontline players, for which Illinois had no answer.
"Obviously, that opens the floor for us immensely when we're making shots," said Iowa forward Tyler Cook, who finished with 12 points, six assists and five rebounds in Thursday's game. "When anybody is making shots for that matter, it's hard to stop them."
The first half was a half of runs that started with Illinois scoring 11 consecutive points early in the half.
Iowa then answered with its own 11-0 scoring run that included two 3-point baskets by Baer.
Isaiah Moss capped the run by making a jump shot that expanded Iowa’s lead to 21-13 with 11:28 left in the first half.
The Hawkeyes were leading 30-20 when Aaron Jordan made a 3-point basket for Illinois. His basket triggered a 9-0 scoring run that finally ended when Iowa point guard Jordanb Bohannon made a trey from near the top of the key.
Bohannon’s 3-pointer ignited a 7-0 scoring run that expanded Iowa’s lead to 37-29 in the final minute of the first half.
Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu then made a basket that trimmed the deficit to 37-31 at halftime.
The first half was physical and chippy at times as players from both teams had to be separated after Iowa guard Connor McCaffery was called for a foul on Illinois forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili with 8 minutes, 48 seconds remaining.
Bezhanishvili was trying to make a layup when Connor McCaffery fouled him from behind. Bezhanishvili’s teammates then rushed to help him up and that’s when words were exchanged.
Illinois was called for a technical foul and that put Bohannon on the free throw line where he made both attempts, while Bezhanishvili’s missed both of his free-throw attempts.
Bohannon and Dosunum appeared to exchange words as both teams left the court at halftime.
Whatever was said seemed to have motivated the Hawkeyes as they quickly asserted their will and turned what had been a competitive game into a rout midway through the second half.
Thursday's victory almost certainly secured a spot for Iowa in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three seasons.
It also might have silenced some of the outside noise and criticism that had started to build during the four-game losing streak.
The Iowa players recently made a decision to stay off Twitter in order to avoid distractions.
"The good thing is we haven't been listening to the outside noise," Cook said. "A lot of us have been off social media for a while now.
"And I think even when we did have it, we did a good job of not letting it affect out locker room."