By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - It had been a while since I had been this excited about a men’s basketball game between Iowa and Illinois.
Consider the circumstances:
Sellout crowd at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Noon tipoff on an unseasonably warm and sunny Sunday in early February.
And the two biggest surprises in the Big Ten squaring off in a key conference matchup in which the winner would greatly improve its postseason resume.
That was a lot of hype to live up to, but the two ranked opponents delivered from that standpoint as No. 18 Iowa edged the 19th-ranked Fighting Illini 72-65 before a raucous home crowd.
Iowa improved to 16-6 overall and 7-4 in the Big Ten, while Illinois fell to 16-6 and 8-3 in the conference, and also had its seven-game winning streak come to an end.
Junior center Luka Garza started slowly on offense, but then caught fire late in the first half and would go on to lead Iowa in scoring with 25 points.
Garza was among three Iowa players who scored in double figures as redshirt freshman guard C.J. Fredrick and sophomore Joe Wieskamp both finished with 18 points.
The emotions nearly spilled over after the game as coaches and players from both teams had to be separated while leaving the court.
Illinois was leading 59-55 when Fredrick made four consecutive free throws to even the score with about five minutes remaining.
Connor McCaffery then made his third 3-point basket of the game to give Iowa a 64-62 lead with 3:30 left to play.
Fredrick made a basket to expand the lead to 66-62 with just under three minutes remaining, and that brought the sellout crowd to their feet as they could start to feel a victory was about to happen.
However, Illinois has had a knack for winning close games on the road, so it still was too early to celebrate, at least until Garza made a 3-point basket from near the top of the key that gave Iowa a 69-62 led with 37.6 second remaining.
The atmosphere inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday shows just how much this depleted Iowa squad has caught the imagination of the fans.
Despite missing two starters, including senior point guard Jordan Bohannon, Garza and his cohorts continue to defy the odds.
Both teams shot less than 45 from the field in what was a rugged and sometimes sloppy first half, which ended with Illinois clinging to a 31-30 lead.
Garza was held scoreless until he converted on an old-fashioned 3-point play with 4:53 left in the first half. That was the start of a sequence in which Garza scored 11 of Iowa’s 13 points in barely more than two minutes.
Illinois was leading 23-15 when Garza’s flurry started and trailing 28-25 when it ended with him making a 3-point basket with 2:16 left in the first half.
Connor McCaffery also made two 3-point baskets in the first half and led Iowa with three assists.
Illinois had an 18-0 advantage in bench points in the first half and a 19-13 rebounding advantage, but still only led by one point at halftime.
Iowa only had five players who scored in the game, but five was enough.