Dosunmu’s key-buckets and words of encouragement help Illinois complete late rally

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Photo Courtesy of UIUC Men's Basketball Twitter

Ayo Dosunmu runs down the court in Illinois’ game at Ohio State Saturday. The Illini won 73-68.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

COLUMBUS — Entrenched in Illinois’ huddle during the last media timeout, Ayo Dosunmu muttered a simple message under his black face mask to Da’Monte Williams.

“Hey, you’re gonna be one of the biggest reasons we win this game.”

A few possessions later, Williams set his feet and drained a crucial three from the right-wing to tie the game at 68. From there, it was Dosunmu time. With under a minute remaining, Illinois’ closer rejected a high Kofi Cockburn ball-screen and took a few dribbles to the right, past Duane Washington Jr., and finished an and-one over Justice Sueing at the rim, to give Illinois a 70-68 lead. Dosunmu would make the free throw, as well as two more after a stop, and  Illinois hung on to win 73-68.

Dosunmu’s last five points were crucial, but so was the message he had for his teammate.

“Just knowing that he has tremendous confidence in me as well, excited me even more,” Williams said.

Dosunmu was in the starting lineup in his return to action, sporting a new black face mask after he suffered a broken nose and a concussion against Michigan State nine days ago. It took the Chicago native just a little more than eight minutes to find his groove. First, Dosunmu pump-faked, took two dribbles left, gathered the ball and finished a lefty layup. Only a few possessions later, Dosunmu would hit two mid-range jumpers, and finish a backdoor layup, looking like the non-facemask version of himself. For Underwood, it was a welcomed sight.

“You have a certain level of unknown if the mask is going to bother you when you shoot,” Underwood said of Dosunmu. “We went in with the mindset of we’re going to ease him back into this.”

Dosunmu’s eight-point spurt put the Illini up 27-22 in the first half and their defense allowed them to build off of that. Consecutive buckets from Kofi Cockburn and Curbelo gave them their biggest lead of the game, 36-26. The Illini had all the momentum but until Justin Ahrens drilled a deep three in front of Illinois’ bench. Then before the half, E.J. Lidell outleapt Cockburn for a rebound and finished a layup to cut the lead to 41-37.

This carried over to the second half, where the Buckeyes scored the first six points to get their first lead since 12:59 remaining in the first stanza. Every time one team pulled ahead, the other answered. A fancy Curbelo spin lay-up put the Illini up 50-45, but a Liddell finish and C.J. Walker three tied back up at 50 apiece.

It appeared Liddell would have another game where he rips Illinois’ heart out. The Belleville native scored 10 points in a three-minute span. His last bucket, a three-pointer that put Ohio State up 68-64, felt like a dagger. But from there, it was all Illinois. The Buckeyes missed their last 10 shots of the game, as Williams and Dosunmu hit crucial buckets to put Illinois over the top. Williams’ defense on Liddell down the stretch helped fuel the run.

“Da’Monte Williams on EJ Liddell to handle their ball-screen, rescreen action with Washington,” Underwood said. “Da’Monte is so strong in his lower-body and was able to bother E.J.

Illinois free throw woes continued, making just 15 of 24 attempts. They only hit four threes and allowed 15 offensive rebounds. Underwood knows they can be better, but for now, they can celebrate. The win was their 16th in conference, a school record. It was also Illinois’ ninth quadrant one win of the season, which leads the country. Nothing is set in stone, but a one-seed is firmly in Illinois’ control now. The Big Ten tournament awaits, but in Indy, the Illini can play with limited pressure on themselves.

@BrandonSimberg

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