In perhaps the most important game of the season, the Iowa men’s basketball team witnessed its lead against Illinois dwindle in the second half on Tuesday night.
Then the improbable happened.
With Iowa up 48-46 and less than five minutes remaining, sophomore Josh Oglesby — marred in one of the worst shooting slumps in Big Ten history — hit a 3-pointer to extend the Hakweyes’ lead. And then another.
The Hawkeyes (19-11, 8-9 Big Ten) would hold off Illinois’ remaining effort after those two vital possessions by Oglesby, and defeated the Illini (21-10, 8-9), 63-55.
“The coaches told me to stay with my shot and keep shooting, so that’s what I did,” Oglesby said. “It feels good. Everyone on this team appreciates each other.”
Devyn Marble led Iowa in scoring with 21 points, further quieting the discussion about his struggles this season. He shot 5-for-12 from the field, including 10-for-10 from the free-throw line, and has recorded double-digit scoring games the last seven contests.
The junior scored seven of Iowa’s final nine points, a very pivotal run by the Southfield, Mich., native. He took control.
“Especially late, I feel more obligated to create for myself than others,” Marble said. “Josh took a lot of pressure off of me making those shots … it was important to withstand that run.”
The Iowa defense matched up well against the Illini’s bevy of shooters, including notable seniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson.
Sophomore Gabe Olaseni blocked six Illini shots, and the Hawkeyes recorded 12 total, which ties the school record for a single game. Illinois head coach John Groce was impressed by Olaseni’s effort, but wasn’t pleased with his team’s response.
“My dad taught me one time, ‘if you hit a wall and it hurts, don’t run into it again,” Groce said. “When you drive, you might want to pass … we tried to adjust, but I didn’t think we adapted at all.”
This is a crucial victory for the Hawkeyes, a team that — someway, somehow — is still in NCAA tournament conversation.
CBS Sports Network’s Doug Gottlieb said over the weekend he has coach Fran McCaffery’s squad in the tourney if they finish 9-9 in conference play and won a game in the Big Ten tournament. Additionally, BPredict wrote this week Iowa is among 19 teams on the bubble.
If Iowa wins on Saturday against Nebraska giving them 20 wins overall and nine in conference, paired with Tuesday night’s win and two-plus victories in the B1G tourney, you probably can’t rule out the Hawkeyes in the Big Dance.
But that’s a tough task.
A win against the Illini keeps the bubble hopes alive, though. Even if it’s just a sliver of hope.