CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Gabriel Olaseni set career highs with 15 points and 12 rebounds, and No. 15 Iowa topped Illinois 81-74 on Saturday night after blowing a big lead.
The Hawkeyes (17-5, 6-3 Big Ten) led by 21 points just over 12 minutes into the game. They battered the Illini with their bench and Big Ten-best rebounding before Joseph Bertrand and company began to rally.
Illinois (13-9, 2-7) took a 62-61 lead on a 3-pointer by Tracy Abrams with 10:18 left in the game. But Iowa stayed close and took the lead for good at 72-70 on a bucket by Mike Gesell with 3:50 to play.
Bertrand scored 20 points and Rayvonte Rice added 13 for Illinois, which has dropped seven in a row.
Roy Devyn Marble led the Hawkeyes with 17 points and Aaron White added 14.
The Hawkeyes turned up their defense over the final five minutes. Their three biggest stops came at the end of a 7-0 run that put Illinois in position for an unlikely win.
Rice converted a layup to give Illinois a 66-61 lead with 9:02 to play. But Jon Ekey missed a pair of jump shots and Melsahn Basabe stole the ball from Rice as Illinois faltered on its next three possessions.
The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, were making their shots, including a layup by Olaseni that tied it at 66 with 7:25 left.
The way Iowa played early on, it looked as if the Hawkeyes would be able to clear the bench at the end of the game.
Iowa bolted to a 34-13 lead. The Hawkeyes had twice as many rebounds as the Illini at that point, and had 14 second-chance points.
But with a long 3-pointer from graduate student-transfer Jon Ekey with just over five minutes left in the half, Illinois started chipping away.
A layup from Rice with 2:42 to play cut the Hawkeye’ lead to 36-26. Freshman Kendrick Nunn made a pair of free throws with a second left in the half to make it 40-36 at the break.
The Hawkeyes went without a field goal for the final 7:37 of the half, and headed to the locker room looking like a team in need of a break.
Illinois surely would have rather kept playing.