Illini Basketball is Truly Back, Ditto for Rivalry with Iowa Hawkeyes

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March 8th, 2020 is a date that will be long remembered in Illini basketball history. 2019-20 Senior Night at the State Farm Center saw the #23 Illini defeat the #18 Iowa Hawkeyes in exciting fashion, 78-76. Illinois finishes the regular season 21-10, nearly a complete reversal of 2018-19’s mark of 12-21.

Tonight saw more heroics from the likes of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, key contributions from floor general Trent Frazier and more high-octane level play from Andres Feliz. Just one year ago, Illini basketball was far from a college basketball consensus pick, generated low levels of interest among fans, students and alumni. Last year, the arena often lacked energy. Tonight, led by The Orange Krush who waited hours to get in, the sold out stadium was electric.

Illinois basketball is back and so is their rivalry with Iowa. According to Dosunmu, there is mutual respect, but the two teams just don’t like each other.

“We just don’t,” he said in postgame.

“They want to kill us. We want to kill them. Simple as that.”

Led by 6’11” Luka Garza and his dynamic duo of eyebrows, the Hawkeyes also entered this game with a 20-10 record and designs on a double in this week’s Big Ten Tournament. In the season’s previous meeting, Hawkeyes successfully defended their home court.

Garza, the hands down favorite to win the Big Ten MVP award, made a season high four three-pointers and finished with a double double (25 points, 10 rebounds).

Garza’s perimeter play successfully dragged Cockburn, Illinois’ fierce rim protector out of the paint. Accounting for Garza is job one for the Illini tonight. 

“Sometimes, you got to take a step back and admire what he’s doing,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said tonight.

“Very few guys can play with that level of intensity against that level of physicality for that long and continue to be effective. We’re very fortunate to have him and we’re going to utilize his talents and his tenacity because it’s infectious to thew rest of the team.”

Early in the first half, the Illini kept feeding Cockburn in the paint, and the battle of the bigs, in a league filled with bold big men begins. The Illini freshman from Kingston Jamaica scored nine of Illinois’ first thirteen points.

On the other end of the floor, Cockburn did his best to contain Garza early. Nevertheless, Iowa’s efficient perimeter shooting put Iowa up by double digits midway through the first half. They quieted the home crowd, who soon turned is angry after a few questionable calls.

Both teams excelled offensively in the first half, but the Illini defense struggled in guarding Iowa’s well spaced attack. A lock to be an All-American first team, Garza picked up the pace and showed Illini fans all that he was capable of.

 

Hitting shots from all over the court, he was on the receiving end of sensational feeds from Joe Wieskamp, Connor McCaffrey and C.J. Fredrick.

However, the rest of Iowa’s offense stagnated and the game was tied up at 33 with five minutes left in the first half. Two big three pointers from Illini role player Da’Monte Williams brought the Illini’s typically pedestrian three point percentage up significantly.

As the final minutes of the half ticked away, the crowd grew rowdier, with boos, screams, and claps deafening. The players then got as rowdy as the fans. A rare quadruple technical was called in a scuffle with a minute left in the first half. 

At the break, the score was deadlocked at 41. The headliner match-up of big men was even as well, with Cockburn having 10 pts and 5 rebs, Garza putting up a 13 and 4.

The second half opened with an impressive Illini scoring run. Feliz hits three pointer from the corner. Frazier poured another one in just moments later. Illinois, having been down ten in the first half are now up seven. A holiday spirit overcomes the fans.

In the Orange Crush section, a massive poster with Fran McCaffrey is displayed. His face beet red, a caption reads “triggered.” (see above) The Illini offense begins firing on all cylinders and the suffocating defense brings them a bigger lead. 

After a thunderous 16-4 run by the Illini, the score is 60-48 and McCaffrey calls timeout.

Surely, McCaffrey is concerned about the spectacular glass cleaning from the Illini, one of the best rebounding teams in the nation this season.

Garza started the second half slowly; eight minutes in, he still hasn’t scored this half and picks up his third foul. McCaffrey realizes this and adjusts. Iowa went back to their bread and butter, Garza post-ups, and Giorgi Bezhanishvilli is subbed in to alleviate Cockburn.

Garza takes advantage, but the Illini stay in control via offensive rebounding. Illinois continues to out hustle and outrun Iowa, grabbing second and third chance points, building their lead to 74-65.

Despite Garza picking up his fourth foul with 3:15 left, Iowa whittles the deficit down to just two, 76-74 with a minute left. The SFC crowd is as quiet as it’s been all night.

Dosunmu is about to do what he does best, hit big shots.

The sophomore from Chicago-Morgan Park hits a mid-range jumper that puts Illinois back up four. Garza responds with a dunk on the other end and it’s a two point game again.

The Illini have the ball and all they must do is make their free throws and the victory, and with it a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament, is theirs. Illinois doesn’t convert from the line and now the final possession will go to Iowa with a chance to tie or take the lead.

With 1.6 seconds left on the clock, Iowa went to who else but Garza, who puts up a potentially game-winning shot.

It’s rejected by Kofi Cockburn, who said of the game-saving block in post game: “It was the most important block of my career, definitely.”

An emotional thriller like this perfectly encompasses what this year has been for Illinois. 2020 has seen a complete revival of the athletic department’s signature program, and now every Illinois student can boast of being a part of a real “basketball school.”

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