IOWA CITY, Iowa — Whether it was the first half at Wisconsin, the second half at Michigan State or the first half at home against Northwestern, Illinois has displayed a penchant for coming out of the locker room sluggish.
It happened not once but twice in Tuesday’s 63-55 loss to Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, with the Illini starting each half colder than the winter storm that brought freezing temperatures and dumped 5 inches of snow on eastern Iowa the last two days.
“I’m disappointed in the way we came out both halves, especially with older guys out there. Very disappointed,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “We’ve got to get that corrected. It shouldn’t happen. I’ve got 21-, 22-plus-year-old senior guys that have been doing this for a while, and we’ve got to be ready to play.”
For whatever reason, they weren’t. Illinois (21-10, 8-9 Big Ten) started the first half 1 for 16 from the floor. The Illini didn’t fare better in the second half against the Hawkeyes (19-11, 8-9), missing 11 of their first 12 shots en route to shooting a season-low 28.6 percent from the floor.
Figures like that, coupled with the effort, can be troubling at any point in the season, but they’re especially alarming with one game left in the regular season while teams are jockeying for position in the Big Ten tournament, which begins next week in Chicago.
“It’s easy to fix. We’ve just got to execute better,” team captain D.J. Richardson (13 points) said. “We missed a lot of shots. We had a lot of good looks. It could have been a crazy game if we would have made shots. At the same time, they made some plays down the stretch, and we missed some shots as well down the stretch.”
It got so bad for the Illini in the second half that Richardson drove down the left side of the lane for an uncontested dunk. His attempt was blocked — by the rim.
Iowa’s students laughed. Groce threw his arms out, palms up, wondering what happened.
“My legs weren’t tired at all. I actually didn’t know if I wanted to lay it in or dunk it, that’s what it was,” Richardson said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Josh Oglesby broke out of a 2-for-19 shooting slump from three-point range to score 10 points for Iowa, including two threes during a decisive 9-0 run when Illinois trailed by two in the second half. Roy Devyn Marble scored a game-high 21.
“In February and March, toughness is important, especially in a league where everybody knows each other well and there’s familiarity with scouting and personnel and tendencies offensively and defensively,” Groce said. “Toughness is a big factor and players making plays. Tonight, their players made more plays than we did.”
With one game remaining — Sunday at No. 14 Ohio State — the Illini aren’t pressing the panic button. It’s not something that’s been their style all season, even when they were 2-7 in conference play.
“It’s really disappointing, but we can’t dwell on it. We can’t get it back. We can’t go back in time. Obviously, we’ve got to figure out what it is we need to do better,” said Brandon Paul (18 points, nine rebounds). “Nothing’s handed to us. We know going into the next game Sunday that’s going to be an even tougher assignment, so we’ve got to come prepared.”
Iowa tied a program record by blocking 12 shots as the Illini shot a season-low 28.6 percent from the floor, ending a three-game win streak at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
What the Hawkeyes said
“If you know Josh (Oglesby), he’s a phenomenally likable person. He’s tried so hard to do what he did tonight all the time. It would be different if he wasn’t putting in the time, if he wasn’t a great teammate.” — coach Fran McCaffery
What the Illini said
“I kind of feel like the last two games we played were sloppy. Tonight was sloppy. They plain and simple out-toughed us. They played better, got on a run and we’ve got to do a better job.” — guard D.J. Richardson
What it means
Illinois blew a chance to guarantee a .500 finish in Big Ten play, and the possibility remains that it could play in the 8-9 game to open the Big Ten tournament next week.
Ohio State will be riding high on Senior Day after knocking off No. 2 Indiana on Tuesday, and the Buckeyes, who have won three straight against the Illini in Columbus, will be looking to avenge a 74-55 January loss to the Illini.