Player grades: Bench players step up, earn Illini first Big Ten Tournament title since 2005


Photo Courtesy of UIUC Men's Basketball Twitter

The Illini pose with the Big Ten Tournament trophy after beating Ohio State 91-88 in the title game on March 14 at Lucas Oil Stadium. Andre Curbelo, Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Da’Monte Williams stepped up for the Illini, helping them snap a 16-year title drought.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

For the first time since 2005, Illinois won the Big Ten Tournament, taking down 5-seed Ohio State 91-88 in overtime on Sunday. Though they had an early 17-point lead, the Illini slowly let it slip away, and the pesky Buckeyes roared back to cut their halftime deficit to just five.

After a back-and-forth second half, an overtime period was needed to settle the contest. The Illini did just enough to sneak past the Buckeyes behind big games from their non-starters Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Andre Curbelo and Da’Monte Williams. The Illini also had a balanced scoring attack, as six finished with at least 10 points.

After cutting down the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Illini will get right back to work as a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament, taking on Drexel on Friday in the opening round. In the meantime, let’s take a look at eight key Illini performances 

Ayo Dosunmu: A-

After dazzling with his passing and scoring during the Illini’s win over the Hawkeyes on Saturday, Dosunmu put together another solid performance, scoring 16 points, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out four assists in the win.

Though he had a seemingly solid day on the score sheet, he scored his 16 points on 5-17 shooting, and while he hit a deep 3-pointer to open up a six-point lead for the Illini, he came up empty on multiple occasions to ice the game late in regulation. I expected Dosunmu to put the game away after clinching several games throughout his time as an Illini, though his performance on Sunday was solid otherwise. 

For the third consecutive game, the Chicago native finished with five turnovers, as his decision-making was a bit questionable at times. I have little doubt that Dosunmu will fix this issue come the NCAA tournament, but I had to dock him for it this time.

Kofi Cockburn: A-

As he’s done all year long, the Illini big man established a presence in the paint early, scoring 11 first-half points while finishing with 16 on 5-9 shooting. His size and physicality on the board was also impressive once again, as he grabbed nine rebounds, including four on the offensive end.

The second half was a different story for the Jamaica native, as he got into foul trouble and only scored five points after halftime. His Buckeye counterpart, sophomore E.J. Liddell, was a bit more productive, going for seven points in the second half.

Cockburn’s early aggressiveness on both ends of the court helped spark the Illini offense, though he needs to keep that intensity up for the entirety of the game and stay out of foul trouble if the Illini want to continue their dominance in the paint.

Jacob Grandison: B-
Grandison didn’t have much of an impact on Sunday, finishing with three points on 1-2 shooting, one steal and one assist. His one trey came with under a minute left in the first half to snap a 10-1 Buckeye run and open up an eight-point Illini lead.

The California native seems to have found his groove on defense, though the Illini will need him to find more open looks on offense going forward in the NCAA tournament.

Trent Frazier: B+
Like usual, Frazier put together solid numbers, scoring 10 points on 4-7 shooting while also picking up three assists. His energy on defense after drawing a charge helped set the tone for the Illini early, eventually leading the team to build a 17-point lead in the first half.

The senior guard also helped Illinois regain its lead with five straight points late in the second half, including a nice ball fake that led to an easy, uncontested layup. One minute later, Frazier hit a 3-pointer right in front of the bench, reinvigorating a tired Illini team.

Though his defense has been nothing short of impressive this season — there’s a reason why he made the Big Ten All-Defensive Team — I thought he could’ve done more on that end to contain Duane Washington Jr., who went for a career-high 32 points, and CJ Walker, who added 16 off the bench

Adam Miller: B-

Like Grandison, Miller didn’t have much of an impact on Sunday, scoring five points on 1-5 shooting, while he went 3-3 from the free-throw line. 

After a sloppy turnover just under one minute into the game, Miller seemed to settle in a bit, but he failed to make his presence felt on either end of the court.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili: A+

Bezhanishvili had a sloppy game on Saturday against the Hawkeyes, and he certainly bounced back with the pressure on against the Buckeyes, putting together one of his best games of the season. The Georgia native finished with 12 points and six rebounds, five of which came on the offensive end.

The junior forward started the game with solid defense and continued building upon that dominance, scoring 10 straight Illini points across a two-and-a-half minute stretch in the second half to open up a nine-point lead.

Though he ultimately fouled out on an and-one with 23 seconds left, allowing the Buckeyes to tie the game on the ensuing free throw, Bezhanishvili was one of the biggest reasons why the Illini pulled out the win to snap their 16-year Big Ten Tournament title drought.

Andre Curbelo: A+

Despite being a freshman and playing in his first — potentially of many — Big Ten Tournament championship games, Curbelo played like a veteran, scoring 16 points while also notching six rebounds and five assists in the biggest game of his collegiate career thus.

Whether it be tough contested layups set up by his own crafty dribbling or fadeaway jump shots, Curbelo found his groove on offense in the second half and in overtime, as he scored six points in each of those periods. He also helped Cockburn get going early, finding the Illini big man in the paint for easy buckets, while he also found shooters behind the arc for three.

The Puerto Rico native did it all on Sunday, and he deserved to cut down the net after his stellar Big Ten campaign. If the Illini cut down the nets again in April, Curbelo will be one of the biggest reasons why.

Da’Monte Williams: A+

Like Bezhanishvili and Curbelo, Williams came off the bench and dazzled on Sunday, finishing with a season-high 13 points while also grabbing three rebounds and three steals. The Peoria native also went 3-3 from behind the arc, including back-to-back treys midway through the first half.

As one of the best 3-point shooters on this Illini team, and arguably one of the best in the nation, Williams needed a game like this to increase his confidence in his 3-point shooting abilities going forward. With the NCAA tournament on the horizon, Illinois will need him to keep hitting these clutch shots if they still want to be playing in April.



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