Photo: Andy Wenstrand/University of Illinois Athletics
CHAMPAIGN — Since the COVID-compromised 2020-21 college basketball schedule was released last autumn, January 29 had been circled on everyone’s calendar. The Illinois-Iowa game was important to Illini and Hawkeye fans, of course. But the entire country was waiting and watching.
That #19 Illinois prevailed 80-75 over #7 Iowa means a bevy of non-Midwestern hoops pundits lavished praise from afar. Included in the chorus were CBS’s Jon Rothstein and ESPN’s Dick Vitale.
It’s just what the Illini needed following a stretch of games where they beat weak opponents (Penn State, Northwestern) and lost to middle-of-the-pack conference foes (Ohio State, Maryland).
Ayo Dosunmu was outstanding for Illinois, especially in the first half when the Hawkeyes’ offensive juggernaut threatened to blow the doors off State Farm Center. Dosunmu answered each Iowa bucket personally, splitting defenders for lay-ups, bank shots and a one-handed dunk. He scored 19 in the first period alone, and finished the game with 25 points.
It helped that Iowa played without its best perimeter defender, CJ Fredrick, who sat out with a leg injury.
Iowa’s consensus pre-season player of the year Luka Garza scored 10 points in the first seven minutes of the game, then none for the next eleven. He finished the first half with 13 points, but scored only six in the second for a total of 19. Foul trouble kept him on the bench for much of that second period.
Dosunmu said the Illini took the game to Garza in particular, forcing the Iowa center to choose between allowing Illinois points, or fouling
“We made him guard. They’re known for playing a zone. Pretty much the whole second half they played a zone. He’s a very efficient offensive player, so they play a zone, typically, to hide him from having to guard. So we just made him guard. I believe we have the best big (man) in the country in Kofi (Cockburn), so we wanted to get the ball to him, try and put fouls on (Garza) and make him work. Make him tired, getting fatigued. I think we did a pretty good job of that.”
Garza entered the game averaging 27 points and 9 rebounds per contest. He averaged seven free-throw attempts per game, and made 74.8% of those shots. On Friday night, he got to the line once, and missed.
“They were better tonight,” Garza said after the game. “There were chances where we could win this game. We know that. We reflect on that. That’s unfortunate because we only get to see them once in the regular season. But hopefully we’ll be able to see them in the Big Ten Tournament.
“I think we did some good things. For us not to have CJ, and for me to be on the bench a lot in the second half, and for us to take a lead with two minutes to go or whatever it was; I think it’s good for our group.
“We know we’ve got to be better. Especially in the first half, on the defensive end. You know, Ayo was getting whatever he wanted in transition. When I got in foul trouble, it really prevented me from protecting the rim as much as I wanted to.”
Illinois got 24 points from senior Trent Frazier, who shot 8-of-13 from the floor, 4-of-9 from the arc, and 4-of-4 from the line. Freshman Andre Curbelo sparked the Illini offense with a game-high eight assists. Junior transfer Jacob Grandison tallied a double-double with eleven points and 10 rebounds in his second start of the season.
Kofi Cockburn scored nine points, grabbed ten rebounds and blocked one crucial shot in crunch time. Originally called goaltending (which would have brought Iowa within two points), the block was reviewed by game officials. Th review was permissible because the play occurred with less than two minutes remaining in regulation. Iowa coach Fran McCaffery refused to comment on the reversal during a terse postgame Q & A via Zoom.
The game was decided as much by who didn’t score as who did. Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon finished with just six points on 2-of-5 shooting from the arc. Illini head coach Brad Underwood credited Frazier for Bohannon’s poor showing.
“The job Trent Frazier did on Bohannon — last time he was in this building he had 29 — and the job Trent did tonight just goes along with my disappointment in him (Frazier) not being on the Naismith award list for Defensive Player of the Year just because he doesn’t get a ton of steals. But his job was tremendous.
“And then when Ayo Dosunmu locks in and guards like that tonight — when he plays defense like that, he is the best player in college basketball.”
Joe Wieskamp added 19 points for Iowa on 5-of-7 three-point shooting. The Hawkeyes drop to 12-4 overall, and 6-3 in the Big Ten. Illinois is now a half game ahead of Iowa in conference standings, tied for second place with Wisconsin at 7-3. Michigan remains alone atop the Big Ten at 8-1.
Overall, the Illini are now 11-5 on the season. They travel to Indiana Tuesday night to play a Hoosiers team that’s now 9-7 on the year, and 4-5 in conference. Indiana lost last Sunday at home to Rutgers, but beat Iowa in Iowa City on the 21st, which was the Hawkeyes last game before Friday night’s contest.
One of the ESPN networks will broadcast Tuesday’s game from Bloomington. Exactly which channel hasn’t been determined, but the game will tip off at 8 PM CT.
Rob McColley covers University of Illinois sports for WILL.