Illinois hangs on to beat Ohio State, claims Big Ten Tournament title in roller-coaster game

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Photo Courtesy of UIUC Men's Basketball Twitter

Sophomore Kofi Cockburn defends Ohio State freshman Zed Key during the Big Ten Tournament title game on March 14 at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Illini won 91-88 in overtime, winning their first Big Ten Tournament title since 2005.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Like he’s done all season, Ayo Dosunmu walked confidently to the free throw line. Then, he retreated and walked back towards half-court.

To “MVP” chants throughout the stadium, Dosunmu’s expression was stone cold underneath his black mask. He hit half-court and returned to the free-throw line, drained both shots and pointed to his ring finger. After a season of “unfinished business,” Dosunmu has a tangible accomplishment to hang on to: Illinois is the 2021 Big Ten Tournament champs.

“We sacrificed it all to be here,” Dosunmu said. “To come out on top, I think it’s crazy. It’s just crazy. I’m in a different feeling right now.”

Eight days after the two top-10 squads faced off in Columbus, they were back at it on Sunday for a Big Ten Tournament championship. This time, the Buckeyes would be without starting center Kyle Young — concussion protocol — and that would make a big difference. Even with Young, Ohio State is undersized up front. And the last team you want to be undersized against? Probably Illinois, in large part due to Kofi Cockburn.

Cockburn used his size to dominate early, scoring nine of Illinois’ first 16 points. Conversely, the Buckeyes seemed fatigued, playing their fourth game in four days. They started 1-16 from the field, as a Dosunmu jumper made it a 27-10 game. But the Buckeyes would crawl back, behind junior guard Duane Washington Jr. Washington went on a scoring tear, putting up 14 points in the last eight and a half minutes. After a layup on the previous possession, Washington caught Trent Frazier sleeping to make it a five-point deficit heading into the half.

“He was really, really good,” Underwood said of Washington. “In my opinion he’s the best guard in this league at shooting off the bounce for threes…He did a great job today of finishing downhill, but he’s got an unbelievably quick release, and if you’re just a little bit late, he’s gonna make it.”

The second half started the same way the first finished — an Ohio State bucket —  and the lead was cut to three. A few possessions later, E.J. Liddell hit a jumper, and the Illini’s lead shrunk to two.

But then, Giorgi Bezhanishvili happened. Even with its All-Big Ten center on the bench, Illinois never surrendered the lead, thanks to Bezhanishvili’s run. He dominated inside, finishing missed shot after missed shot, for three straight free-throw appearances. He made two and-ones and finished with nine points in a two and a half minute span to put Illinois back up by 11.

“The last two games he really wasn’t playing,” Dosunmu said of Bezhanishvili. “But guess what? He did his thing in the championship game, so nobody cares about the first two games. Everybody remembers how he played in the championship. For him to just be over there, on the bench, waiting for his moment, coming in and seizing the moment? And being so great in that moment? My hat goes off to him.”

But Washington Jr. and the Buckeyes kept clawing their way back. An 11-2 run, capped off by a C.J. Walker and-one, made it a one-point game. A few possessions later, another Washington Jr. trey tied it, and on the ensuing possession, the Buckeyes took its first lead of the game, 67-65.

Illinois didn’t panic. They showed the resiliency required of a team that wants to win a Big Ten title, going on a 7-0 spurt to regain the lead, but the Buckeyes crawled back once again. A Justice Sueing and-one tied the game at 77. Illinois had a chance to win, but Dosunmu missed a chance to win the game, a rare occurrence, and the two teams headed to overtime.

The back-and-forth continued into the extra period. But a 7-0 Illini run put them up 87-81, and the Buckeyes had no miracles left in them. The confetti poured down, and Illinois celebrated its first Big Ten Tournament title in 16 years. For a team that wanted to hang a banner all season, it’s an accomplishment. But Brad Underwood stood on the court and had one message for the Illini faithful.

“We’re not done yet.”

@BrandonSimberg

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