Illinois pulls out win at Iowa

By Lisa Koulias

IOWA CITY, Iowa – From the time the game started, nothing seemed right for the No. 1 Illini.

They missed shots, turned the ball over more than usual and even had some shot clock violations.

But then the Illini did what they do best.

In Illinois’ 75-65 win over Iowa (16-9, 4-8) on Saturday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the Illini (27-0, 13-0) pulled together and found a way to win.

And although the usual guys, Dee Brown and Deron Williams, stepped up big for their team, another Illini decided it was his turn to be in the spotlight.

Senior Nick Smith, who has seen limited playing time this season, came up big in the stretch as the 7-foot-2-inch forward contributed seven points in his 14 minutes of play.

Smith added five key points in the final 4:05 as he swished two free throws and a fade-away three from the corner with 50 seconds left in the game to smother Iowa’s hopes of coming back.

“The bottom line was making plays,” said Iowa head coach Steve Alford. “Nick Smith: a huge three. I don’t think that was bad defense. It was a 7-foot-2-inch guy falling into the bench in the corner and making the shot. Good players become great players when they learn how to make plays.”

To Alford, that was the biggest difference in the game. His young team has struggled since stand-out guard Pierre Pierce was dismissed from the team.

Although his inexperienced team played the Illini tight, the Hawkeyes couldn’t take care of the ball as they committed 11 more turnovers than the Illini.

“I thought both teams really competed hard,” Alford said. “It really came down to our team not taking care of the basketball. We’ve got some inexperience out there and I thought we just gave up too many turnovers. I thought that was really the difference.

“They got 11 more shots up and 11 more possessions. And you can’t give a team like this 11 more possessions.”

Williams, who finished with 18 points, played all 40 minutes for the Illini. The junior guard gave the Illini a boost several times throughout the game, especially at the beginning of the second half.

Brown took it upon himself to put the Illini up at the end, as he hit a fast-break layup off a Luther Head steal and then a three well beyond the arc on the Illini’s next trip down.

“Dee’s a big-time player,” Alford said. “With five minutes to go, he said, ‘This is my time. I’m going to make plays.'”

“You look around the country – there aren’t too many teams that have four or five guys who can make plays anytime,” Brown said.

To Alford, that is what makes this team the best in the country.

“This is a fun team to watch, because they can beat you in a lot of different ways,” he said. “We threw zones at them, we threw mans at them, we threw traps at them. We shot well on our home floor. We got to the free throw line at our home floor. We outrebounded them by 15.

“And you still lose by 10. They find ways to win.”

As the Illini return home for their two last home games, one thing is on their minds – a Big Ten Championship. With a win on Wednesday over Northwestern, the Illini would clinch a share of the title. They could win the title outright in a win the following week against Purdue – the team’s final home game of the season.

“I did remind them that last year it was in Michigan State’s hands, and they didn’t take care of it last year. They let us grab it,” said head coach Bruce Weber. “You can’t take anything for granted. You’ve got to go grab it. We want to clinch that thing at home and we can do that with a couple victories.”