NEW YORK — The first Big Ten tournament game at Madison Square Garden featured a couple of teams that were a combined 1,665 miles — give or take — away from home, no players from New York City, and a kid from Iowa having a blast on the big stage.
The Big Ten opened a five-day run at the “Mecca of Basketball” with Jordan Bohannon leading Iowa past Illinois 96-87 on Wednesday night. Bohannon scored 25 points and had six assists, including a bounce pass to Luka Garza for a jam with 34 seconds left to keep the Illini at bay.
“This is my first time being here,” said Bohannon, the 6-foot sophomore from Marion, Iowa. “Something you always want to do when you’re growing up. Something you think about, playing in Madison Square Garden. You think about the people that played here before you and currently playing here.”
The 12th-seeded Hawkeyes (14-18) got solid work inside from Tyler Cook (19 points, five rebounds) and Garza (20 and eight) to go with the accurate shooting of Bohannon. The sophomore was 5 for 7 from 3-point range. Iowa will face fifth-seeded Michigan on Thursday.
“They’re a very good, explosive offensive team, and their size bothered us and Bohannon just loves seeing orange and blue,” Illini coach Brad Underwood said.
Bohannon scored 29 in an overtime victory against the Illini in Champaign, Illinois, back in January.
Kipper Nichols scored a career-best 31 points for 13th seed Illinois (14-18), which closed out Underwood’s first season with two wins in its final nine games.
The Big Ten planted its flag in New York five years ago when Rutgers was added along with Maryland. The conference opened up an office in Manhattan and started sending a football team to the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium. Bringing the conference hoops tournament to the Big Apple was another move by Commissioner Jim Delany to claim the biggest media market in the country as Big Ten territory.
When the Hawkeyes and Illini tipped off at 5:30 p.m. local time there were about 3,000 fans in the lower bowl of the Garden, though it was about double by the end. Rutgers and Minnesota played the nightcap.
To get a reservation at the Garden — which will host the Big East next week — the Big Ten needed to tweak its regular-season schedule and take the early bird special, starting its tournament a week before the other power leagues will. The Big Ten will crown a champion Sunday, a week before the NCAA Tournament selections.
Illinois: The Illini have not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2013, but this will be the first season as a head coach that Underwood has not led his team to the NCAAs. He did it each of his three seasons as head coach at Stephen F. Austin and took Oklahoma State there last year, his one and only season with the Cowboys.
Nichols, a sophomore, and freshman Trent Frazier, who scored 13 points, hope to be part of a turnaround at Illinois.
“Our youth has shown throughout the year and I think that once we get better collectively and come together as a unit and hone in on that stuff, I think the sky is the limit for this new coaching staff,” Nichols said.
Iowa: Bohannon dropped in a 3 from the left wing with 5:55 left to give Iowa an 80-70 lead and the Hawkeyes were never in serious trouble from there in a game that got a little bloody. Twice play had to be stopped because a player was bleeding, the second time late in the game when Illinois’ Te’Jon Lucas cut his hand and left Garza with streaks of red on his white jersey.
Illinois: On to next season for the Illini, who can look forward to an early trip to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes will try to avoid going 0-3 against Michigan this season.
“They’re not an easy team to guard,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey said. “They share it. They spread you out. They have multiple 3-point shooters. They also have multiple drivers.”