IOWA CITY — It isn’t NIT-picking to say Iowa’s NCAA tournament hopes took a turn for the worse Sunday night.

The Hawkeyes need to do some winning at this week’s Big Ten tournament to receive an at-large berth in the NCAA’s Field of 68 next Sunday. Just how much, who knows? But it has to start Thursday when, as the No. 7 seed, they have a second-round game at 5:30 p.m. in Minneapolis’ Target Center against Ohio State.

Under interim head coach Jake Diebler, the Buckeyes have won their last four games, including a 73-51 clubbing of Rutgers in New Jersey Sunday. They are 9-11 in the Big Ten and 19-12 overall.

Illinois forward Dain Dainja (42) attempts a layup under pressure from Iowa guard Josh Dix (4) and forward Ladji Dembele (13) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, March 10, 2024, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Cliff Jette)

“We’re playing one of the hottest teams in the country right now,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “So I’ve got to have them ready.”

The Hawkeyes finished 10-10 in conference play with their 73-61 loss to Illinois Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, snapping their string of four straight winning conference seasons. They are 18-13 overall. No. 12 Illinois is 14-6 and 23-8.

“In my opinion,” Illini Coach Brad Underwood said after the game, Iowa is “NCAA-worthy. They should be in the Dance. It’s as good a team offensively as there is out there.”

“I think we have work to do,” McCaffery said, “but I appreciate Brad and think he’s right. I think we’re one of the better teams. We’ve got some really good wins in a very difficult league, we’ve got some good wins out-of-conference.

“It’s not something you want to leave to chance. You want to do some more damage this week if you can.”

The Hawkeye offense Underwood praised scored a season-low in points and made just 35.4 percent of its field goal tries against his Illini. It certainly didn’t help Iowa hat it was out-rebounded, 50-33, with just three offensive rebounds.

“We missed 42 shots,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “You’ve got to get more than three back. … That’s unacceptable.

“We missed a lot of shots. You’ve got to get it back and get to the free-throw line. We didn’t do that.”

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The game started about as miserably for Iowa as it could have. Illinois scored the first 10 points and Iowa missed its first nine shots. Things got worse for the Hawkeyes before they got better. Illinois led 30-9 with 9:31 left in the first half.

With freshman guard Brock Harding in the game at point guard, the Hawkeyes pulled back to within eight points before they closed the half trailing 39-29. Harding had 6 points, 6 assists and 2 steals in 12 minutes.

Guard Terrence Shannon scored 18 first-half points for the Illini, and had the defensive play of the game late in the half when he blocked what had momentarily looked like a breakaway dunk for Josh Dix.

Shannon, the Big Ten’s No. 2 scorer, had 25 points.

The Illini upped their lead to 46-32. Iowa closed to 51-47 with 11:14 left, but Marcus Domask scored consecutive baskets to start an 8-0 Illinois run for a 12-point lead.

Conceding nothing, Payton Sandfort sank back-to-back 3-pointers to slice the Illini advantage to 59-53 with 6:58 left. Sandfort led Iowa with 23 points.

However, the Illini scored the next eight points and put the game away. They were just better. Shannon, a fifth-year player, defended Iowa senior Tony Perkins, who was 1-of-10 from the field. Every Hawkeye who took a shot had more misses than makes.

Now starts the second season. Iowa won four games in four days in 2022 to win the Big Ten championships. Last year, it lost to Ohio State on Thursday and didn’t reach the quarterfinals.

“If we bring a different level of energy, swagger, and just confidence to Minneapolis, I think we’ve got a good chance,” Sandfort said.

“We’re not done yet.”

But lose Thursday, and the question will be if Iowa can squeeze in a first-round NIT home game before the NCAA women’s tournament takes over operations in Carver for the opening two rounds.