No. 3 Illinois keeps winning ways going, slams home No. 5 Iowa


Photo Courtesy of UIUC Men's Basketball Twitter

Sophomore Kofi Cockburn goes up for a dunk against Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament on March 13 at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Illini won the game 82-71 and advanced to the Big Ten Tournament championship game for the first time since 2008.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

After losing to Michigan State in late February, Illinois was faced with a decision.

With games against some of the Big Ten’s top teams still to come, the Illini could rise to the challenge and show they were deserving of all their preseason hype. Or, they could continue their inconsistent ways and never live up to their potential.

Since that loss, Illinois has been on a tear, knocking off the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State and Rutgers. Next up on the hit list was their biggest rivals entering the season: the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Behind a high-powered offensive attack, Illinois was able to get the lead on Iowa and never looked back, beating the Hawkeyes 82-71 in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. The victory marked Underwood’s squad’s sixth straight.

“It means a lot,” Andre Curbelo said. “Big Ten is the best conference in the country. … Beating all those teams has been great. It’s a great feeling. We know how good we are. We’re loaded. We have so many weapons.”

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Both Iowa and Illinois rank in the top seven in KenPom on offense, and stops were at a premium, especially early on. When Kofi Cockburn finished an and-one, it was Illinois’ tenth make in 15 attempts and helped complete a 9-0 run to put Illinois up 22-14.

But the three-pointer was the equalizer for the Hawkeyes early. Every time Illinois built a sizable lead, it seemed Iowa would hit a three. This time, it was Joe Wieskamp, draining one from the right wing. Iowa hit eight threes on the night, compared to Illinois’ 3-15 shooting. But, with Cockburn playing some of his best basketball, it didn’t matter.

“The first couple games I played against him, I gave him angles and reached in,” Cockburn said. “Coach Chin mentioned earlier in the season, ‘if you force him to score through you and he scores it, you pat him.’ That’s what I did today. I just walled up and forced him to score through me.”

The Illinois sophomore dominated against the fellow Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award candidate, going for 26 on 11-17 shooting and eight rebounds. Luka Garza also got his, but Cockburn made the star Iowa center work, as he finished just 8-21 from the field.

Leading 45-37 at the half, Illinois came out of the floodgates fast to start the second half. After a Cockburn layup, the Hawkeyes abandoned man-defense and tried to go zone. But Ayo Dosunmu found Jacob Grandison cutting weak-side against the defense and placed a perfectly timed lob that Grandison slammed home. The crowd fed off every Illinois dunk, as they finished with 10.

Cockburn would pick up his fourth foul with just over six minutes remaining, and the Hawkeyes made their final push. Jordan Bohannon hit a three, Connor McCaffery hit two free throws and Bohannon rimmed in another trey to cut the lead to five. But on the ensuing Hawkeye possession, it was Bohannon who had his pocket picked by Andre Curbelo, leading to a Dosunmu transition dunk and burying the Hawkeyes for good.

“Winning plays: It’s the difference of diving on floor, reaching in and picking it up,” Underwood said. “If we don’t pick it up, we don’t finish the dunk. Those are all the details, all the little things that don’t show up in a stat sheet … That’s just a play that wins games, and it’s our culture. I’m glad to see ‘Belo listen”

The win was another on the hit list. The Illini have now beaten five of the top seven Big Ten teams in the past month — the other two being themselves and Purdue. But it also sends Illinois to the Big Ten Tournament championship for the first time since 2008. They’ll look to secure that coveted title on Sunday against the Ohio State Buckeyes.


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