INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Illinois' players wanted to block out the talk about coach Bruce Weber's uncertain future.
After their latest performance, the topic was unavoidable.
Matt Gatens scored 20 points to help Iowa defeat Illinois 64-61 Thursday in the first round of the Big Ten tournament in what might have been the final game for Weber as coach of the Fighting Illini. Illinois closed the regular season having lost eight of nine, fueling speculation that Weber would be fired and creating a distraction as the team prepared for the tournament.
"I think it's obviously difficult," Illinois guard Brandon Paul said.
Paul, Illinois' top scorer, had hoped to ease the burden on his coach. Instead he finished with four points on 2-for-11 shooting and committed seven turnovers.
"I feel like I let him down, I let my fans down, I let the team down," Paul said.
Weber said he didn't know whether he would be on the sideline if Illinois received an NIT bid. He said the stretch run had been difficult.
"It's just like life," he said. "There's great moments in life, and there's moments that aren't so good, and every day you've got to approach life with a positive attitude. If you just go in a pity party for yourself, nothing's going to happen.
"And that's the whole message I've given to our kids this whole time. Sometimes it's not fair. But what you do about it makes the difference."
After a regular season filled with questions about Illinois' toughness, the Illini launched 26 3-pointers against Iowa and never shot a free throw. Iowa trailed by four at halftime but outrebounded the much bigger Illini 27-17 after the break.
Illinois nearly saved Weber for at least another day - D.J. Richardson missed a 3-pointer in the closing seconds that would have tied the score.
Meyers Leonard had 18 points and six rebounds and Richardson and Joseph Bertrand added 11 points each for ninth-seeded Illinois (17-15).
Aaron White had 13 points and nine rebounds for eighth-seeded Iowa (17-15), which has won four of its last six and will play No. 1 seed Michigan State on Friday.
Iowa had 14 offensive rebounds in the second half. The Hawkeyes also committed just six turnovers compared to 17 in their 65-54 loss to the Illini on Feb. 26.
Gatens not only scored big points, he guarded Paul. Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said it was a shame Gatens wasn't on the conference's all-defense team.
"It's the same effort every night," McCaffery said. "That's why I thought he deserved to be on the team. I don't want to go too sideways about it because it's disrespectful to the guys who made it. Because the reality is they're all terrific defenders. But I think he's the best."
Illinois shot well early and jumped to a 24-19 lead. Richardson's 3-pointer as time expired gave the Fighting Illini a 31-27 lead at the break.
A layup by Richardson extended Illinois' lead to 40-33 with 16:49 left and prompted forced the Hawkeyes to call time out.
Just as Illinois appeared ready to create some space after a nice baseline drive and baby hook shot by Leonard pushed its lead to 44-37, Iowa quickly recovered. A 3-pointer by Gatens followed by a steal and dunk by Gatens cut Illinois' led to two. Melsahn Basabe's dunk with 12:21 left tied the score, and then a put-back by White gave Iowa a 48-46 lead.
Iowa stretched the advantage to 57-50 on a jumper by Gatens, and the Hawkeyes remained ahead into the final minute.
"You're down seven, you've got to make something happen," Gatens said.
Iowa led 60-56, and Illinois had the ball. But Paul threw the ball right to Iowa's Roy Devyn Marble on the inbounds pass. Marble was fouled but missed the free throw. But White, playing with four fouls, grabbed the rebound.
Gatens was fouled with 37 seconds left, and he made both free throws to put Iowa up 62-56.
Bertrand drained a 3-pointer to cut Iowa's lead to 62-61 with 16 seconds left.
But Gatens made two more free throws to set up Illinois' final possession. When Richardson's shot missed, it sent Gatens, a senior, past the first day of the tournament for the first time.
"I don't want to go home," he said. "I want to keep playing, and I don't want to take this uniform off. And I think all the guys feel the same way."
It might be Weber who goes home for good.
"When you lose and don't have success as a coach, of course there's disappointment," he said. "And, you know, that's why you coach, to help your team be successful. All you can do is come every day and give your best effort."
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cliffbruntap