IOWA CITY — It felt very much like baseball weather outside on Saturday.
And inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena, members of the Iowa basketball team sort of felt like they left the bases loaded a few times. Including the bottom of the ninth.
The Hawkeyes squandered several opportunities to put away an equally desperate Illinois team, then came up empty offensively in the final minutes, going down to a 70-66 loss that severely damages their hopes of securing some sort of postseason tournament berth.
It was Iowa’s third straight loss and only its second defeat at home in the past two months.
And it stung.
Senior Peter Jok found exactly the right word to describe the loss, which drops the Hawkeyes to just a game above .500 at 14-13: “Frustrating.
“It was a weird game,’’ said Jok, who finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds. “We'd make a run and we’d think we were going to get up by 9, 10, 12, but then they’d make a run so it was close the whole game … We just have to execute down the stretch and I don’t think we did as a team.’’
Freshman Tyler Cook said it definitely felt as though the Hawkeyes had a chance to open up a big margin on the Illini (15-12, 5-9 Big Ten).
“Definitely. I felt that a few times,’’ Cook said. “We would get a decent lead and then we’d make a couple of mistakes or a turnover and they’d get a couple of buckets in a row and then all of sudden we were back to tied or down again. We just need to keep our foot on the pedal and when we get those kind of leads, do what we need to do to keep expanding them.’’
Illinois coach John Groce said he felt “fortunate’’ and “blessed’’ to escape Carver-Hawkeye’s first sellout crowd of the season with a much-needed win. His team did so despite turning the ball over 17 times against Iowa’s pressure defense and making only half of its free throws.
It helped that the Illini shot 55.2 percent from the field in the second half while Iowa shot just 31.3 percent after making half its shots in the first half.
“I thought we gave great effort and it took every ounce of that effort to come out of here with a win,’’ Groce said.
Iowa led for most of the game and reclaimed a 61-60 lead on a Brady Ellingson jumper with 2 minutes, 37 seconds remaining in the back-and-forth battle, but the Illini pretty much dominated the rest of the way.
Malcolm Hill, who led both teams with 21 points, scored on a drive to give Illinois a 62-61 lead and the Hawkeyes came up empty on their next four trips down the court.
Jordan Bohannon, an 87.5-percent free throw shooter, missed two foul shots. Bohannon then had a shot blocked by Te’Jon Lucas on a drive to the hoop, Jok had a shot swatted away by Maverick Morgan and Ellingson missed a 3-pointer from the left corner.
In the meantime, Jalen Coleman-Lands knocked down a 3-pointer with 1:31 to go and the Illini held on even as Lucas made just two of five free throws in the final minute.
Hill made it 67-63 with two foul shots with 5.9 seconds remaining and after Jok finally connected on a 3 with 1.2 seconds to go, Hill added two more clinching free throws.
“Our guys showed great mental and physical toughness,’’ Groce said. “That was what I was most proud of. We just showed great resiliency.’’
The Hawkeyes’ biggest chance to take control of the game came in the middle of the first half when the Illini went scoreless for more than six minutes. However, the Hawkeyes scored only nine points themselves in that stretch to take a modest 15-12 lead.
“The thing I saw there was guys didn’t flinch,’’ Groce said. “They showed great resiliency, great fight. They showed the kind of fight I expect from someone who puts on that jersey.’’
Iowa led for nearly 26 minutes over the course of the game, but Illinois grabbed the upper hand late with an 8-0 run that made it a 60-56 lead with 3 ½ minutes left.
Bohannon nailed a 3 and Ellingson scored from just inside the 3-point line to give Iowa that brief 61-60 lead before the Hawkeyes' offense disintegrated.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said he wasn’t sure if his players succumbed to the pressure of the moment, knowing how important a victory was to their postseason aspirations.
“I thought we did make some uncharacteristic mistakes at times,’’ he said. “And yet, we made some really good plays at times. So I don’t know.’’
The Hawkeyes now probably need to win three of their last four regular-season games to even have a shot at the NIT and that’s a tall order since two of those games are on the road against Big Ten co-leaders Wisconsin and Maryland.
“The season’s not over yet,’’ Jok cautioned. “We’ve just got to keep fighting.’’