Illinois relishes off fans’ energy, goes on to stomp Rutgers


Photo Courtesy of UIUC Men's Basketball Twitter

Junior guard Ayo Dosunmu drives toward the basket in the first half of the game against Rutgers at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 12. The Illini advanced to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2010 with a 90-68 win over the Scarlet Knights.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

When No. 3 Illinois ran onto the court at Lucas Oil Stadium, it was met with a different kind of buzz. Though the Illini are used to being met with silence, pregame music on the Jumbotron was drowned out by cheers.

In a sea of mostly blue chairs stood some blotches of orange shirts. Those puddles of orange were loud with every Ayo Dosunmu floater, every Kofi Cockburn slam dunk and every Jacob Grandison and-one as well.

The Big Ten allowed 8,000 fans at the Big Ten Tournament on Friday. While there was a mix of all fanbases, a strong showing from Illini Nation helped Illinois build energy early, propelling them to a 9-0 lead in under three minutes. The crowd noise only got louder as Illinois’ play got better, resulting in an 90-68 Illinois victory.

“It was great to see fans support us,” Dosunmu said. “It always gives you extra juice, extra adrenaline. Seeing the fans there, it felt good. It felt like a playoff game.”

Like most postseason contests, Rutgers responded to Illinois’ first punch with a counter: a 9-2 run of their own. But Illinois’ offense fired on all cylinders. The Illini made nine of their next eleven shots from the field: one dunk, four lay-ups, two midrange jumpers and two threes. A Cockburn layup put the Illini up 37-20, a seemingly insurmountable deficit for the Scarlet Knights.

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Illinois cooled off from the field but still found ways to put points on the board. Big Ten Tournament team grabbed nine offensive rebounds in the first half and drew 13 first-half Rutgers fouls. By the end of the game, 17 of Illinois’ 45 rebounds came on the offensive end of the floor. Rebounding was an emphasis in practice this week, something Underwood consistently preached.

“They got on us, drilling us to offensive rebound,” Dosunmu said. “Rutgers, that’s one of their weak spots. They’re 13th in the conference in defensive rebounding, so we knew that we could create second-chance opportunities. Everyone bought into that.”

Rutgers couldn’t pick up much ground in the second half. A 7-0 spurt, capitalized by a Geo Baker basket, made it a 14-point game, but Dosummu got to the free throw line and made both. Except for five turnovers, Dosunmu was steady and efficient, going for 23 points on 8-11 shooting and six assists.

Illinois continued its offensive route in the second half. It poured on 43 more second-half points. Illinois shot just 5-17 from three but scored 46 points in the paint, dunking the ball eight times. One of those dunks came off a transition feed from Dosunmu to Miller. The Morgan Park duo connected for a dunk, leading to an “I-L-L — I-N-I” chant, the final dagger in the Scarlet Knights’ armor.

The win put Illinois into the Big Ten Tournament semifinals for the first time since 2010, another milestone for what is shaping up to be a historic march. Underwood is proud of what that means but knows there is more to be done.

“Means we’re headed in the right direction,” Underwood said. “I think it’s fantastic. It’s where Illinois should be, … but we’re a program that should be towards the top of this league.”


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