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#24 Iowa aims to stay hot, faces #20 Illinois

#24 Iowa aims to stay hot, faces #20 Illinois

#24 isn’t winning the Big Ten. But it’s hard to think of a team in the league playing better basketball heading into the postseason than the Hawkeyes.

Winners of five straight and eight of its last nine, Iowa can seal a double bye into the conference tournament if it can win on Sunday night against #20 in Champaign, Ill.

The Hawkeyes’ latest victory was an 82-71 decision on Thursday night at Michigan. They opened up a 47-30 halftime lead and pushed the margin to 19 with eight minutes left before warding off a late rally by the Wolverines.

“I think we’re playing really well,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. “I think we’re playing hard. I think we’re getting good play from a lot of different people. You knew they were going to make a run. They made a run, but we got enough stops and we got enough buckets to hold them off.”

Keegan Murray continued his excellent season with 23 points on just nine shot attempts, hitting all four of his 3-pointers and adding seven rebounds. Jordan Bohannon and Kris Murray added 19 points each and Tony Perkins scored 13.

The Hawkeyes’ high-powered offense shot well in every phase, hitting 52.6 percent of its shots from the field, nearly 58 percent on 3-pointers and 11 of 12 at the foul line. Even though Michigan mixed man-to-man and a matchup zone defense, Iowa (22-8, 12-7) kept creating good looks and connecting.

“That changes some things in terms of movement and screening and cutting,” McCaffery said. “For the most part, we stayed confident.”

Keegan Murray is averaging a Big 10-best 23.3 points per game to go along with 8.5 rebounds. Bohannon is adding 11.2 and sinking 38.2 percent of his 3-pointers. As a team, Iowa is scoring 83.6 points per game and making nearly as many free throws (446) as its opponents attempt (481).

Meanwhile, Illinois (21-8, 14-5) could enter this one with a chance to share the conference title and earn the top seed at the Big Ten tourney. That would require last-place Nebraska, which has won two straight on the road, to win earlier Sunday at Wisconsin.

Even if the Badgers clinch the regular-season crown, the Illini can wrap up the #2 seed with a win. They nearly messed up that opportunity Thursday night before holding Penn State scoreless for a 5:55 span down the stretch of a 60-55 home win.

The Nittany Lions limited Ilinois’ leading scorer Kofi Cockburn to seven shots and 11 points with frequent double-teams. Da’Monte Williams took up some slack by connecting on four 3-pointers and scoring a season-high 14 points.

“I haven’t really been shooting the ball well lately, but that still doesn’t stop me from coming in every day and doing my normal routines,” Williams said.

Despite his limited numbers on Thursday night, Cockburn is still averaging an impressive 21.0 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. Teammate Alfonso Plummer contributes 15.1 points per game and hits 42 percent of his 3-point attempts.

The teams last played on Dec. 6 in Iowa City, where Illinois outscored the Hawkeyes 87-83.

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