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Timing is everything

Illinois did everything to win on Thursday night, just not at the right time. Their inopportune play dropped them to 0-5 in conference play as Iowa picked up its first Big Ten win, 104-97.

Timing was off was for Illinois (10-8, 0-5) even before the tip. The flu had plagued the team since before the Minnesota game a week previous, and it stubbornly lingered and forced Mark Smith from the starting lineup. Likewise, Te’Jon Lucas sat courtside in street clothes during warm-up, suspended for a violation of team rules. On a night when many teammates were less than 100%, Lucas could have timed his absence better.

But when the ball was tipped, Illinois could hardly put a foot wrong. In the opening 10 minutes the hosts extended a lead of 32-16, then hitting a high of 20 points, 49-29, at 3:53 after a Trent Frazier three. Illinois’s win probability (pictured below, from ESPN) would hit 97% after that, its highest of the evening. It would steadily fall afterward.

Much of the Illini offense was fueled by Iowa turnovers, as the Illini put up 16 points on 11 turnovers in the first half. More impressive, though, was Illinois’s three point shooting, which stood at an unreal 9/15 (60%) at half. The Illini offense was good for 1.4 points per possession in the half, with Kipper Nichols was again clutch from the bench, racking up double-digit scoring early on, scoring 11 after 12 minutes of game time. Nichols output could have been more spaced out, though, as he would only score 2 more points before fouling out with 5 seconds left in regulation.

The Illinois defense then chose a bad time to go missing, allowing Iowa 26 points over the final 10 minutes of the first half and letting them get to the foul line too often. The Hawkeyes were 14/14 from the charity stripe in the first half, preventing the Illini from putting the game on ice early. Still, at halftime the Illini led 54-41, but they chose the wrong half to put up an outrageous number.

Poor defense carried into the second half, and Iowa cut the lead to 3 points with a 10-0 run after just more than 2 minutes played. After averaging a pedestrian 1.05 points per possession in the first half, Iowa took advantage of Illinois’s lax defense to the tune of 1.485 points per possession in the second. After halftime, Illinois only forced 6 additional turnovers from Iowa. Leron Black did his best to keep the game within Illinois’s grasp, with 8 points in the first 8 minutes of the half, but Iowa tied the game at 12:06.

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The Hawkeyes stayed close and got Illinois in foul trouble, eventually taking the lead with 3 minutes to play. Shortly thereafter, Black picked up his fifth foul, sent to the bench after scoring 18 points, 12 in the second half alone. Iowa dominated the win probability at that point, at 90% likely to win.

Frazier was the Illini offense down the stretch, as he was for most of the game, finishing with 27 points, including 7/11 from behind the arc. With Iowa holding a slim lead and the clock fighting the Illini as hard as the Hawkeyes, Frazier stepped up and hit the most punctual shot of the night. It was an insane, off-balance three as time expired that tied the game at 90. It was incredible, awe-inspiring, and seemingly changed the course of the game, but it ended up meaning nothing at all.

Despite Fraizer’s big shot, the Hawkeyes had the rhythm, the Illini did not.

In the extra time, Iowa scored early and often and Illinois could hardly buy a basket. Then DaMonte Williams fouled out and left Illinois with just 5 rotation players and a few minutes to play. Among those available, only Aaron Jordan (18 points, 4 assists) and Frazier were effective, and Frazier was out of gas and failed to score in overtime; the others eligible for Illinois were flu-ravaged Smith (2 points in 17 minutes), still-developing Greg Eboigbodin (8 points, 4 rebounds), and Michael Finke, who played as if he were missing (4 points, 4 rebounds in 21 minutes).

Losing might have stung less if the Illini hadn’t played like a champion before it really mattered. But, in a battle of conference foes with no conference wins, it wasn’t Illinois’s time.

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