Illinois earns four seed, double-round bye in Big Ten Tournament after thrashing Iowa 78-76 at home

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Jonathan Bonaguro

Sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu (11), freshman center Kofi Cockburn (21) and junior guard Da’Monte Williams walk together toward Illinois’ huddle during the game against No. 18 Iowa at State Farm Center Sunday night.

By Nathan DeHaan, On Air Editor for Sports

In a game that began with smiles and senior starters, the intensity quickly escalated resulting in chippy play and technical fouls all in the first half. When the dust settled No. 23 Illinois had held off No. 18 Iowa by a score of 78-76. The Illini finished the season with a record of 21-10, 13-7 in the Big Ten. That’s the best regular-season record Illinois basketball has had since 2012-2013 when the Illini went 21-11.

Big Ten regular-season play concluded with three programs sharing the league’s top spot. The trio of No. 16 Michigan State, No. 9 Maryland and No. 24 Wisconsin are conference co-champions, all yielding 14-6 records in the Big Ten. Wisconsin coined the No. 1 seed for the Big Ten Tournament, which is set to kickoff with two first-round games Wednesday, while Michigan State and Maryland snag No. 2 and 3 seeds, respectively. Illinois trails the top-three finishers with the next-best record in the conference, 13-7, earning a double-round bye and the No. 4 seed in the league tourney.

Iowa opened the game scorching hot, especially from the three. In the first half, Iowa shot 53% from the field, 62% from three and was a perfect 8-8 from the free-throw line. At two separate moments, Illinois found themselves down 10, but the Illini fought back thanks to freshman center Kofi Cockburn’s 10-point five-rebound first half. At the break, the game was tied thanks to a 7-2 Illinois run to close it.

The second half started off all Illinois, with the Illini sprouting off a 23-7 run to lead the Hawkeyes by 16 with 11:32 to go, but once the deep ball began falling again for the Hawkeyes, they climbed back into the game. After a Bakari Evelyn three-pointer with 2:21 left, it was a four-point ballgame. The tension in the State Farm Center rose to the ceiling.

Illinois clamped down on the defensive end, allowing only six points in the last two minutes, and, just as he has so many times before this season, sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu answered the prayers of Illini fans everywhere. After Iowa’s Luka Garza hit a shot to make it a two-point game, Dosunmu penned the game with his signature midrange pull up jump shot with 31 seconds remaining. Dosunmu finished with 17 points, seven rebounds and eight assists.

“He lives for that. He lives to play with a chip on his shoulder,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “Tell him he can’t do something, he’s gonna go prove you wrong.”

After a Garza dunk and a missed free throw from Dosunmu, Iowa still had three looks at the basket before the final whistle blew. In the end, player of the year candidate, Garza’s final attempt was deflected by Cockburn and the clock ran out on the Hawkeyes. Cockburn finished with 12 points and eight rebounds.

The game felt like it was personal between the players and some of the coaches after these two teams played a similar high-stakes game earlier in the season at Iowa City. After the game, Dosunmu talked about the rivalry.

“We don’t like each other, simple as that,” Dosunmu said. “We just don’t. We don’t like each other. They want to kill us; we want to kill them.”

Underwood addressed the budding rivalry after the game too.

“I think rivalries if you want to call it that are awesome, they’re great for sports,” Underwood said. “Those games become fun. They become more fun for the fans and the players.”

The result means Illinois is the four-seed in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament and Iowa will be the five-seed. If Iowa wins its first game, the two will match up for a second time in six days on Friday in Indianapolis.

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