IOWA CITY, Iowa The lane was clear for Iowa guard Devyn Marble, thanks to sophomore teammate Josh Oglesby.
In perhaps the game's most pivotal possession Tuesday night, the Hawkeyes had a play drawn up for Oglesby. The Illinois defense knew it and watched for Oglesby. Marble took advantage, scored, was fouled, sank a free throw and led the Hawkeyes (19-11, 8-9 Big Ten) to a 63-55 win against the Fighting Illini at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The Hawkeyes' toughness as demonstrated by tying a school record with 12 blocked shots kept them alive for NCAA tournament consideration. It also marked the most wins for Iowa in a season since 2005-06. But more than the postseason or the past, the game was about guts, heart and shaking off adversity. Nobody better understood that than Marble, Oglesby and Gabe Olaseni.
Oglesby has struggled mightily all season from 3-point range. With Iowa up 48-46, Oglesby, who had missed his first four 3-point attempts, stepped up with a crucial 3-pointer to give Iowa a 51-46 lead. After Illinois' Brandon Paul missed his 3-point attempt, Iowa rolled down the court. Marble found Oglesby left of the basket. Oglesby didn't hesitate and drilled the shot to send Iowa up eight and the crowd into a frenzy.
Two possessions later and Iowa up 54-46, Marble saw the lane open. Oglesby was guarded. Marble knew what to do.
"We were running a play for Josh, and Brandon Paul tried to reach on me," Marble said. "I was able to get past him. Once I saw that, I knew I had a clear path to the lane. The big man was so deep in the paint worried about Josh coming off the screens and stuff, whether or not they should switch or not, that I knew that they weren't going to be able to take a charge.
"So I knew once I got to the hole I was going to be able to get the foul. The 'and-one,' I guess, was a good play. I knew we were getting something positive out of that play, going into that."
Marble's three-point play lifted Iowa to an 11-point lead. The Illini sliced it to six with back-to-back 3-pointers. But Marble, who has overcome a midseason slump in style, was crucial late. He scored seven of Iowa's final nine points to finish with 21. He's now two points shy of 1,000 in his career.
"I thought tonight in particular he was especially good," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "He had a great tempo to his game, a real understanding of time and score in terms of engineering victory, getting us home."
Marble finished with six rebounds, four assists and three turnovers in 34 minutes.
But Iowa's win was defined by defense, not offense. It was the fourth time in school history the Hawkeyes had 12 blocks, and Olaseni finished with six.
"Ah, that's pretty good," Olaseni deadpanned afterward.
"He was sort of taking care of business for us," McCaffery said.
Illinois leads the Big Ten in 3-pointers made and attempts. The Hawkeyes, who feature the league's best 3-point defense, stalled Illini shooters to miss 10 of their first 11 3-point shots. Illinois was 9-of-29 from 3-point range. Guards Brandon Paul (18 points), D.J. Richardson (13 points) and Tracy Abrams (six points) combined to shoot 11-of-39 from the field.
"We need to make a few more plays with those guys," Illinois coach John Groce said. "We count on those guys to make some plays for us. I thought they had some opportunities tonight, and they didn't make them.
"I thought the first half we had great looks. The second half I did not. I thought they did a really good job of defending us in the second half. I thought our guys were tentative in the second half."
The win ended a series-record three-game slide for Iowa against the Illini at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.