INDIANAPOLIS – For Illinois, the game was about a Big Ten tournament title, of course. But it also was about making a strong case to host some NCAA tournament games.
For Iowa, the game was about making the NCAA tournament.
On this night, desperation won out.
Reminded at halftime Monday night exactly what was at stake, the Hawkeyes scored the first 13 points of the second half, then survived a determined Illini comeback to win 63-56 at the RCA Dome.
"It kind of hit home when Coach (Angie) Lee said at halftime that this could be our last 20 minutes," Iowa forward Amy Herrig said. "I think that got us fired up for the second half to come out strong, and it carried us through in the last few minutes of the game."
The conference tournament title took all the guesswork out of Iowa's situation, since the champion receives the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The 16th-ranked Illini, 22-7 and a Big Ten regular season co-champion, also are assured of making the tournament. But Monday's defeat created uncertainty about whether they'll open that tournament on the road or at Huff Hall."
"I don't know what it'll do to the possibility of hosting," UI associate athletic director Karol Kahrs said.
The possibility of the Illini pulling Monday night's game out, even after trailing by as many as 12 points in the second half, was very real.
With the Illini finally applying the clamps to Iowa's offense and with guard Krista Reinking scoring six points to spark an 11-0 run, Illinois pulled into a 53-53 tie with about four minutes left.
During the spurt, the Illini forced three turnovers and held the Hawkeyes to 0-of-4 shooting from the field.
"I think our defense brought us back," Reinking said. "We had great help defense inside. (Forward) Nicole Vasey got a key deflection, a couple steals, a couple big rebounds. I think that definitely keyed the comeback with our defense."
But the Illini never could get over the hump. When guard Angela Hamblin ended an Iowa drought of almost 51/2 minutes with two free throws, Illinois fell behind 55-53. Fell behind for good, as it turned out.
Illinois managed three more points the rest of the way, and Iowa hit 6 of 8 free throws to slowly but surely pull away.
"I was extremely proud of how they fought back, and in particular their defense late in that second half to make that comeback," coach Theresa Grentz said of her Illini.
Defense did indeed rule this game. Iowa, which entered with the Big Ten's No.2-ranked defense, held the Big Ten's No. 1 scoring offense to its lowest point total of the season. Illinois, averaging 83.8 points, hadn't been held down this much since a 63-59 loss to Purdue on Dec. 27.
"I think Iowa played great defense," said Illini guard Katie Coleman, who scored 12 points off the bench to tie Vasey for the team lead. "They weren't letting us get clean looks at the basket."
And Iowa, which had shot over 50 percent in each of its previous five games – all victories – was limited to 36.7 percent (22 of 60) by the Illini.
What Illinois couldn't limit, though, was Iowa's storming of the offensive boards. The Hawkeyes grabbed 19 offensive rebounds in outrebounding the Illini 35-30.
"I thought we gave them shots they really didn't want," Grentz said. "But they got the second and third rebounds, and you can't beat a team that's getting second and third rebounds on you."
Hamblin, who had played so well for Iowa when it eliminated Illinois from last year's conference tournament, tormented the Illini again.
Playing in her home state, the Gary native scored 12 points in the decisive second half and finished with a game-high 10 rebounds as Iowa, 17-11, won its first-ever Big Ten tournament title.
Hamblin, who finished with 14 points, was named most valuable player of the tournament.