CHAMPAIGN — It was, in many ways, the most bitter of defeats for Illinois.
It certainly was highly unusual, this 81-74 decision against 15th-ranked Iowa. The Hawkeyes had lost 11 in a row — and 22 of their last 23 — games played here.
It was the seventh consecutive loss for the Illini (13-9, 2-7 Big Ten), the program’s longest losing streak in 15 years. And it left them alone in the Big Ten cellar. Does it get any worse than that?
“That one stings,” coach John Groce said.
It stings, and it stinks. But you know what? It also was the best night this team has had in nearly a month, since it beat Penn State here to move to 13-2 overall and 2-0 in conference play.
That fast start clearly was a bit of a mirage. The Illini have, for the most part, gone bone dry since — desperate for something good to happen before the bottom completely drops out on their season.
Well, don’t call these guys the Dyin’ Illini, because their performance against Iowa was full of positives. For a stretch of about 30 minutes, they played like the Top 25 team they were for the bat of an eye in early January.
“I can live with [this loss],” Groce said. “I mean, they fought their tails off.”
Against a much bigger, more experienced and clearly better team, the Illini fell behind by 21 in the first half. But they closed the half on a 23-6 surge to trail 40-36.
The second half brought more of the same, as the Illini finally took a 62-61 lead on a three-pointer by Tracy Abrams with 10:18 left to play. The lead was extended to 66-61 on a layup by Rayvonte Rice, but the Hawkeyes eventually regained control.
Had Illinois won, it would have equaled the program’s biggest home comeback. In 2000, the Illini rallied from 21 down to beat Seton Hall here.
That team, Bill Self’s first as coach, won 27 games, shared the Big Ten title and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
This team won’t accomplish anything close to that. An eighth consecutive defeat would mark the longest losing streak at Illinois in 40 years. At this point, reaching the NIT seems an ambitious goal.
But Joseph Bertrand did everything but bleed for his 20 points, diving on the floor repeatedly, on the scorer’s table, to the rim through heavy traffic. Rice fought hard for his 13 points and nine rebounds.
The Illini got after it hard enough that Groce told his players in the locker room: “I’m proud of you. I love you.”
Groce was emotional about a lot of things after the game. There were some boos during the opening 10 minutes, and that’s a no-go as far as Groce is concerned.
“I was ticked off,” Groce said. “People were booing. I don’t like that. You can say stuff about me. Don’t touch my guys.”
It’s also the first time Groce has been around a seven-game losing streak since the 1999-2000 season, when he was an assistant coach at North Carolina State.