INDIANAPOLIS — Iowa senior guard Matt Gatens has moved into uncharted territory, and he and his teammates are thrilled about it.
Gatens made two free throws with 10.6 seconds left in the second half to lift eighth-seeded Iowa to a 64-61 victory over No. 9 seed Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The victory was Iowa’s first in the conference tournament since 2006 when Gatens was a sophomore at City High. It also was Iowa’s first victory over Illinois in the last eight games, and it moved the Hawkeyes (17-15) into a quarterfinal matchup with top-seeded Michigan State on Friday. The Spartans beat the Hawks 95-61 in January.
“It means a lot, especially for Matt, a guy that has been here all four years and has really been loyal to the program and fans,” sophomore guard Devyn Marble said. “We as a team just want to see him have as much success as possible while he is here.”
That was the message being conveyed by the Iowa players after Thursday’s victory, which saw Illinois make 7-of-26 3-point baskets and attempt no free throws.
The Iowa players are determined to send their star senior leader out on a high note.
“That’s awesome; I appreciate it,” Gatens said of his teammates’ support. “I don’t want it to end, either.
“I want to keep playing with these guys. It’s been a fun experience. And I love playing for coach (Fran McCaffery) alongside all these guys.”
Iowa had a 39-35 advantage on the boards despite the presence of Illinois’ 7-foot-1 sophomore center Meyers Leonard. The Hawkeyes grabbed 14 offensive rebounds in the second half, but none were bigger than the one freshman forward Aaron White grabbed on a missed Illinois free throw with 41 seconds left to play.
White then got the ball to Gatens, who drew a foul and made two free throws to expand Iowa’s lead to 62-58 with 37 seconds left to play.
“He’s a heady guy who makes big plays when we need them,” Gatens said of the 6-foot-8 White, who made the Big Ten all-freshman team this season. “A guy misses that free throw, and he comes in and gets the offensive board, and we knock down two free throws.
“Plays like that are huge.”
White said he prides himself on getting offensive rebounds and was more determined to crash the boards in the second half.
“That’s something I do well,” White said of grabbing offensive rebounds. “So I just tried to sneak in there and tap it out to myself and get it to our best free-throw shooter in Matt. It was a big play, but it was something that needed to be done.”
With Thursday’s victory, McCaffery became the second Iowa coach to win a game at the Big Ten Tournament. He joins Steve Alford, who compiled a 13-6 record in the Big Ten Tournament during his eight seasons as coach from 1999-2007. Alford also led Iowa to Big Ten Tournament titles in 2001 and 2006.
“I think that’s a wonderful accomplishment for coach Fran,” Marble said. “I’m happy for him. I love him to death.
“So for us able to be able to give that to him, I’m proud to say I was a part of that.”
Iowa has secured at least a .500 finish to the season with Thursday’s victory. The Hawkeyes also have won six more games than last season.
However, sophomore forward Melsahn Basabe still was reluctant to say the program, which has had four consecutive losing seasons, is over the hard part.
“I don’t want say we’re over the hump,” said Basabe, who finished with seven points and four rebounds off the bench. “I would say we’re rising. And I’m going to leave it at that. I don’t want to talk ahead of myself.”
Gatens led Iowa with 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting from the field. He was the only player for Iowa to score in double figures Thursday.
Leonard led three Illinois players in double figures with 18 points while only missing two of his 11 field-goal attempts. However, he didn’t score in the final 10 minutes.
He and his teammates also had no answer for Iowa on the boards in the second half.
“I think that was a big difference maker in this game,” McCaffery said.
Illinois bolted to a 40-33 lead early in the second, but the momentum started to shift back to Iowa when freshman guard Josh Oglesby made a 3-point basket to trim the deficit to 40-36 with 16:24 left to play.
Gatens also scored five consecutive points to cut the lead to 44-42 with 13:39 left to play.
“Down seven, you need to make something happen,” Gatens said. “It was great to see our guys believe and be confident and put a run of our own on them.”
Illinois lost for the 12th time in its last 14 games and has a 1-9 record since Feb. 1. Its only victory during that time was a 65-54 decision over Iowa on Feb. 26 in Champaign, Ill. That also was the only time the teams met during the regular season.
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Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinals
Who: Iowa (17-15) at Michigan State (24-7).
When, where: 11 a.m. Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
TV, radio: ESPN, KXIC 800-AM.
Get ready to talk March Madness on Hawk Central:
Sunday: Men’s basketball reporter Rick Brown will be online from about 5 to 6:30 p.m. to chat about the brackets.
Monday: At 12:30 p.m., Rick Brown, Iowa State men’s reporter Randy Peterson and columnist Marc Hansen will talk men’s basketball. Then, Former Associated Press women’s basketball writer Chuck Schoffner will be on about 6 to 7 p.m. to chat about the women’s brackets.
Tuesday: At noon, women’s college basketball reporter Andrew Logue and sports editor Ryan Suchomel will join Schoffner to talk women’s picks, local regionals and more.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball