CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It was quite a recovery by No. 15 Iowa. Even coach Fran McCaffery was impressed.
Gabriel Olaseni set career highs with 15 points and 12 rebounds, and the Hawkeyes topped Illinois 81-74 on Saturday night after blowing a big lead.
"It would have been easy for us tonight, when they came back the way they did, to kind of fold up and go back home," McCaffery said. "If you want to be a team to contend in this league, you better be able to come back and perform the way we did."
McCaffery questioned his team's toughness after a 75-67 loss at Michigan on Jan. 22, and guard Mike Gesell said the Hawkeyes (17-5, 6-3 Big Ten) answered their coach with their effort against the Illini.
"We really did show some toughness -- blow the big lead we had, get down by five and then be able to keep our composure," Gesell said. "This arena, it got really loud in there."
The Hawkeyes 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 Gesell with 3:50 to go.
Bertrand scored 20 points and Rayvonte Rice added 13 for Illinois, which has dropped seven in a row for its longest slide since 1999. But coach John Groce said the effort against Iowa answers the questions he's been hearing about his team.
"Where are your guys at? How they feeling? I think they answered all your questions in about 30 minutes there," he said. "We were right there."
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.
"When we got some stops, (then) we executed our offense, we got some second shots," McCaffery said.
The way Iowa played early, it looked as if the Hawkeyes would be able to clear the bench by 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 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.
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidmercerap