CHAMPAIGN — As Matt Bollant scanned the tensed faces of his players during timeouts Thursday night, the first-year Illinois women’s basketball coach twice was compelled to pose this question:
“Are you enjoying this? You’re ahead of the 24th-ranked team in the country.”
You’ll have to excuse the Illini, Coach, for the hold-their-breath demeanor. Taking down longtime nemesis Iowa is not something that happens around these parts very often.
But it did on this night. Illinois ended an eight-game losing streak to the Hawkeyes — and beat Iowa for just the second time in the last 16 meetings of these Big Ten rivals — 74-62 at the Assembly Hall.
“It feels great,” said center Karisma Penn, part of an Illini senior class that had been 0-5 during their careers against the Hawkeyes. “All us seniors had our private little party.”
The celebration didn’t need to wait until the final buzzer. Illinois settled any doubt about the outcome of this game with a 14-0 scoring run that started with just over five minutes left.
With the score tied at 60, Amber Moore sank her fifth three-pointer of the game to ignite the game-turning surge. When it was over, an Iowa team that had won its last seven games in Champaign and entered 6-0 against ranked opponents was hopelessly behind.
“We beat a very good Iowa team, a team that will be playing in the NCAA tournament,” Bollant said.
Illinois (12-8, 5-3 Big Ten) also beat a conference opponent at home for the first time this season. That nagging omission had stood at 0-3 before the Illini finally rewarded their fans — on this night, 1,808 of them — with the kind of performance they’ve regularly been turning in on the Big Ten road (4-0).
“Really great to get a win at home after losing three tough ones at home, especially so many close games that we lost,” Bollant said. “And to step up and play an Iowa team that had a lot of confidence ... and knock them off, we showed a lot of grit and a lot of toughness.”
Those qualities were especially apparent on the defensive end. Illinois racked up 15 steals and pressured Iowa (16-6, 5-3 Big Ten) into a season-high 27 turnovers. The Illini ended up scoring 30 points off those Hawkeye miscues.
“That’s what we talked about before the game — this has to be a game of toughness,” Bollant said. “(Iowa is) so highly skilled, they pass and shoot so well, that if you let them do that, they’re just really hard to stop. ... We’ve got to force some turnovers and play with some toughness, and thankfully we did.”
The Illini also vexed the Hawkeyes with their long-range shooting. One game after hitting 11 three-pointers against Minnesota — a school record for a Big Ten game — Illinois racked up 11 more treys in 24 attempts. Moore and Ivory Crawford (four three-pointers) did most of the sharp-shooting damage.
“We’ve been working on it and having rhythmed threes and not taking bad shots,” Moore said. “When you do it within the system, it feels better and your confidence builds up.”
Penn led a balanced Illinois attack with 18 points. Adrienne GodBold (17), Moore (17) and Crawford (14) also scored in double figures.
Although the Illini lost the rebound battle 38-31 to the taller Hawkeyes, they managed to hold Iowa’s towering centers — 6-foot-5 Morgan Johnson and 6-4 Bethany Doolittle — to a combined 10 points on 5-of-13 shooting.
Johnson, who entered with a team-leading 15.7 scoring average, fouled out with just under five minutes left. Iowa point guard Samantha Logic, the Big Ten leader in assists, missed the final 2:21 after also picking up her fifth foul.
“Once Johnson fouled out and Logic fouled out, I think the momentum was definitely on our side,” Penn said. “And we saw that and kept going harder and kept going harder.”