Illinois tips Iowa 66-63 on Jon Ekey 3-pointer

Illinois+forward+Jon+Ekey+shoots+a+free+throw+against+Iowa+at+Carver-Hawkeye+Arena+on+Saturday%2C+March+8%2C+2014.+The+Hawkeyes+lost+to+the+Illini+66-63.

Illinois forward Jon Ekey shoots a free throw against Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday, March 8, 2014. The Hawkeyes lost to the Illini 66-63.

By Shannon Ryan

IOWA CITY, Iowa – At this point, Illinois coach John Groce said he really shouldn’t be surprised.

After all, this is the team that came up for air after being submerged in an eight-game losing streak. The same team, he said, that never buried their heads during that slump or fretted after Tuesday night’s 31-point drubbing by Michigan.

So when he saw Iowa charge back from a 14-point deficit on the road, he knew the players would respond.

“I shouldn’t be surprised. When adversity hits, they’ve responded,” he said. “I thought we played with a lot of heart. …I’m really proud of the resiliency that they’ve had and the fact that’s becoming a part of our DNA.”

Their identity was clear Saturday night in their 66-63 regular season finale victory at No. 24 Iowa.

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    Tracy Abrams found Jon Ekey for the game-winner with 0.3 seconds left as a far-from-open Ekey drained a 3-pointer. Iowa had tied the game with layup by Gabriel Olaseni with 40 seconds left.

    Illinois ended the regular season having won three straight on the road as they head into the Big Ten tournament Thursday as either a No. 7, 8 or 9 seed, depending on the outcome of Sunday’s games.

    They also ended Iowa’s streak of 30 straight victories against unranked opponents at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where they celebrated senior week. The Hawkeyes are unraveling as they have lost five of their last six games.

    Illinois held Iowa, which was averaging 83.3 points per game, to a season low.

    While the end of the game provided some dramatic flair, it was the start of the game that set the tone.

    Illinois built a 20-6 lead thanks to seven early points from Nnanna Egwu. When Egwu headed to the bench with two fouls, the Hawkeyes used a 17-1 run to head into halftime with a 34-29 lead.

    “It’s really hard from that point forward,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “Yeah, we got the lead a couple times, but it just changes everything.”

    Rayvonte Rice led the Illini with 15 points, while Egwu scored 14 and Kendrick Nunn added 10.

    Aaron White led Iowa with 12 points.

    With no timeouts remaining, Groce called out one of his end-of-game plays with seven seconds remaining. Abrams showed poise finding Ekey as his defender hesitated for a moment.

    “It was nice we ran that play,” Ekey said. “They guarded me well but it happened to work out for us.”