CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Fran McCaffery wanted toughness.
On Saturday night, he got toughness.
He didn’t necessarily get the sort of offensive execution he craves or the sort of defense he preaches. He probably didn’t get a lot of the things he wants and expects from his Iowa basketball team.
But toughness and effort ended up being enough to help the Hawkeyes pull out a wild 81-74 victory over Illinois at the State Farm Center.
The victory snapped an 11-game Iowa losing streak in Champaign that dated to 1999 and it extended Illinois’ own streak of misery. The Illini have lost seven straight games and have taken up residence in the Big Ten cellar.
The 15th-ranked Hawkeyes opened an early 21-point lead, blew it with another one of those offensive dry spells they sometimes encounter, fell behind by as much as five in the second half, then outscored the Illini 15-4 down the stretch to move to 17-5, 6-3 in the Big Ten.
Asked if this is the sort of toughness he was looking for, McCaffery flashed a wry smile and said “Yes, very much so."
Junior forward Aaron White said it got the team’s attention when McCaffery questioned the Hawkeyes’ grit following a 71-69 loss to Michigan State on Tuesday.
“It’s probably one of the worst things you can call an athlete," White said. “I understand why he called us that so I didn’t think he was ripping on us ... We just knew we’ve got to really bear down and play the caliber of basketball we can."
White finished with 14 points, including two clinching free throws with 23.9 seconds remaining. Devyn Marble led the Hawkeyes with 17 points after not scoring at all in the first half.
However, the real difference-maker was junior center Gabe Olaseni, who finished with career highs of 15 points and 12 rebounds.
Olaseni fueled an early 15-1 run that put the Hawkeyes comfortably ahead. They executed the game plan of tough man-to-man defense and transition offense to perfection, building the lead to 34-13 with 7:35 to go in the first half.
Then they went inexplicably stagnant at both ends of the floor.
“In the first half we really were doing well with all those things, then we went to the zone and I think the zone softened us a little bit," McCaffery said. “Then, when we went back to man we weren’t as sharp with all those things."
The Illini (13-9, 2-7 Big Ten) took advantage. They held the Hawkeyes without a field goal for the rest of the half, and led by Sterling native Joseph Bertrand and freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, they chopped the lead down to 40-36 by halftime.
“We didn’t get the stops we needed in that stretch and it limited us because they were scoring," Marble said. “It was difficult for us to get out in transition and do the things we did to build that early lead. In that sense, we did let off gas little bit tonight."
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Veteran Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey became more involved in the second half and after a frenetic 6-minute sequence in which both teams scored on nearly every possession, the Illini surged into a 66-61 lead.
Illinois coach John Groce called a timeout with 8:33 remaining and it ended up benefiting Iowa more than his own team. White said it was in that huddle that the Hawkeyes found the resolve to finish the job.
“We just said ‘This has to stop’ and we got the stops we needed," White said.
They took the lead with a 7-0 run in which Mike Gesell got the ball to Marble for a fast-break layup, scored on a drive and then hit a free throw, making it 73-70 with 3:04 remaining.
Iowa continued to get defensive stops, Olaseni speared a couple of big rebounds, Marble and White converted some key free throws and the Hawkeyes escaped with a victory in an arena in which they had lost 22 of the previous 23 times they played there.
Illinois, led by Bertrand’s 20 points and Rice’s 13, scored more points than in any other game in their losing streak but they were outrebounded 41-28.
Still, Groce saw progress in his team. And he, too, saw the sort of toughness he wants.
“That one stings because of how hard our guys worked," he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of our toughness and togetherness in a loss in my six years as a head coach … I can live with that one because our guys fought their tails off."