Illinois ends regular season on high note after upset victory over Iowa


Jon Ekey didn’t have an ideal senior night. 

Ekey finished with four points on 0-for-3 shooting from behind the arc in an 84-53 beating against Michigan. That’s not how any senior wants to go out. When Ekey was given another shot on Iowa’s senior night, he made sure to go out in style.

Behind Ekey’s late 3-pointer and a resurgent Nnanna Egwu, Illinois upset No. 24 Iowa in Iowa City.

Illinois nearly let this one slip away. A 3-pointer by Ekey with three minutes left in the game put Illinois up 63-59. From that point on it was a freefall for Illinois. Illinois ended up missing a shot and turning the ball over twice to allow Iowa to tie the game at 63. Illinois head coach John Groce then opted to run the offense through Tracy Abrams on the last play.

I was shocked that Abrams, not Rayvonte Rice, was given the ball with 23 seconds left. Abrams was struggling once again, shooting just 2-for-9 from the field, while Rice had a game-high 15 points. Even Kendrick Nunn, who finished with 10 points and four assists, seemed like a better option than the inefficient Abrams. Abrams was shaky handling the ball on the final play, dribbling the clock down with nowhere to go. He then stopped his dribble, looked to his left, and gave the ball to Ekey.

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    The senior rose up and hoisted a contested 3-pointer. The ball dropped in with 0.5 seconds left. I doubt that’s how Groce would’ve drawn it up. Ekey bailed out Illinois for an otherwise uncreative, motionless offensive set. This game never should’ve been this close.

    Illinois started on fire from the floor, going on a 20-6 run out the gate. The start was reminiscent of Iowa’s 21-9 run to begin the game in their first meeting on Feb. 1. Illinois blew the lead as Iowa ended the half on a 28-9 run. Despite Ekey’s late heroics, it was Egwu that led the Illini on Saturday.

    I’ll admit I almost gave up on Egwu when he was struggling earlier this season. The junior had a stretch of 15 games where he scored in double digits just twice. His penchant to take long jumpers, miss layups, and play soft made me think freshman Maverick Morgan deserved more minutes. Boy, was I wrong.

    Egwu has scored a season-high 14 points twice in his last five games. He’s not going to dominate in the post or throw down vicious dunks, but he can make an offensive impact in other ways. Egwu set solid screens, knocked down his open looks and got to the line consistently against Iowa. Egwu’s offense was just a bonus because, as usual, his defensive effort was inspiring.

    The defense, led by Egwu, was suffocating. Groce clearly made adjustments from the teams’ first meeting. The Hawkeyes also dominated the paint in that game, led by Gabriel Olaseni’s 15 points and 12 rebounds. In Saturday’s game, Illinois’ zone defense neutralized the paint for the Hawkeyes.

    Illinois used the 2-3 zone the most it has all season and coaxed Iowa into taking long jumpers, especially in the second half. Iowa’s fast-paced offense was forced to slow down and play in the half-court. Groce also made sure to have his guards play a version of a full-court press, preventing Iowa from pushing the ball. Iowa was held to a season-low 63 points — 20 below its scoring average.

    There’s something about competing on the road that plays to Illinois’ strengths. Illinois has been able to play free and easy while letting their defense lead the way. Illinois has now won three straight road games, with two of them coming against ranked teams. Illinois’ road-warrior mentality will bode well moving forward, as the Illini will play away from home for the rest of the season.

    Illinois is peaking at the right time. With the exception of that dud against Michigan, Illinois has found its groove. We’re at the point in the season where we know who Illinois is. The Illini are never going to be an offensive powerhouse or start raining 3-pointers. Illinois is a strong defensive team that gets by offensively with the scoring of Rice and Nunn. Illinois is also a team that is well-coached and will work relentlessly, regardless of the situation. 

    Is Illinois’ defense and intensity enough to carry them through the Big Ten tournament? Probably not, but Illinois is sure as hell going to try.

    Michael is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @The_MDubb.