CHICAGO — The 22nd annual Big Ten basketball tournament was expected to be perhaps the most competitive and evenly matched in the event’s history and the first five games lived up to that.
All of them were decided by eight points or less and two of them went into overtime.
But the Iowa Hawkeyes decided to depart from the script Thursday night.
The Hawkeyes snapped out of their recent doldrums and put an abrupt end to the four-game losing streak by romping to an 83-62 victory over Illinois in the final game of the second day of action at the United Center.
The victory moves sixth-seeded Iowa (22-10) into the quarterfinals for the first time in six years. It will take on No. 3 seed Michigan tonight in a game scheduled to start at about 8:30 p.m.
Senior Nicholas Baer led an offensive onslaught that helped the Hawkeyes forge a modest halftime lead before they blew the game open with a 36-16 blast to open the second half.
Baer missed his first 3-point field goal, then made five in a row and ended up matching his season high with 17 points. The Hawkeyes were very balanced, though, as Joe Wieskamp added 13 points, Tyler Cook 12, Ryan Kriener 11, Isaiah Moss 9, Jordan Bohannon 8 and Luka Garza 7.
Baer said he thought it probably ranked among the best games of his four-year career.
"I felt a lot of confidence coming in tonight,'' he said. "I didn’t make my first shot but I just stayed confident … I think this is really big for our team that we all played aggressively. I just came in and did that tonight, as a lot of guys did.’’
The 6-foot-7 senior said it was no surprise to him that the Hawkeyes bounced back from a rough finish to the regular season.
“It’s just something that we say: Never get too high or get too low,'' he said. "We’re a really good basketball team and we were able to come out tonight and knock down shots and re-establish our post play.''
The Hawkeyes shot 51.7 percent from the field, 56.3 in the second half, and moved the ball extremely well. They had 25 assists on 31 made baskets, eight by Connor McCaffery, six by Cook and five by Bohannon.
In the second half, they had 16 assists and just one turnover.
“Not much better than that at all,'' Connor McCaffery said. "In the second half we knew they were going to ratchet up the defense with that style they play, full-out denial on the wings, really up on the ballhandler … As long as we make good back cuts and set good screens, you can get a lot of stuff opening up.’’
Illinois, which advanced with an overtime victory over Northwestern on Wednesday, finished its season 12-21. Giorgi Bezhanishvili led the Illini with 12 points with Trent Frazier and Tevian Jones adding 11 apiece and Ayo Dosunmu 10.
The Illini actually shot 52 percent from the field but they only got to the foul line four times and committed 15 turnovers.
The Hawkeyes, who defeated the Illini 95-71 on Jan. 20, held a 37-31 lead after a first half that included five scoring runs of seven or more points by the two teams.
Iowa started extremely well, forcing Illinois into turnovers on four of its first six possessions, including two shot clock violations, and opening a 7-0 lead. The Illini countered with a run of 11 straight points that included a pair of 3-point field goals by Jones.
The Hawkeyes quickly bounced back with an 11-0 binge of their own, fueled by two Baer 3s and one by Bohannon.
The Iowa lead went as high as 10 points (30-20) before the Hawkeyes hit a stretch in which they were scoreless for more than five minutes, allowing the Illini to click off nine straight points.
The Hawkeyes regained control with a 7-0 run that began with another Bohannon 3. A Dosunmu tip-in in the final seconds of the half chopped the Iowa lead to six.
The game got heated for awhile in the middle of the half when McCaffery was called for a flagrant foul with 8:48 to go. However, Illinois’ Andres Feliz also was slapped with a technical for his reaction to the play.
The Hawkeyes got off to an even stronger start in the second half with the help of the Illini, who committed five fouls in the first 96 seconds of the half. They quickly pushed the margin to double figures. An 8-0 scoring run that included a Baer 3 and five points by Kriener upped the lead to 58-42 with 12 minutes remaining.
The margin eventually went as high as 27 (78-51) when Wieskamp dunked and converted a 3-point play.
“It was a lot of fun,'' Wieskamp admitted. "You could see a lot of smiles from us out there.’’
Iowa last made it to quarterfinals in 2013, and with a victory tonight it could get to the semifinals for the first time since it won the tournament in 2006.