Cockburn’s interior domination, Frazier’s lockdown defense see Illinois destroy Drexel

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Photo Courtesy of UIUC Men's Basketball Twitter

Sophomore Kofi Cockburn goes up for a layup in the second half of the game against Drexel on March 19 at Indiana Farmers Coliseum. The Illini won 78-49 and advanced to the Round of 32.

By Gabby Hajduk, Former Sports Editor

INDIANAPOLIS — The last time Illinois basketball went dancing, John Groce’s 2013 team fell in the second round to Miami. Just four seasons into his tenure, head coach Brad Underwood took his Illini into Indiana Farmers Coliseum as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region.

While seeding and talent sided with Illinois, the group lacked NCAA tournament experience, leading to some early nerves and a slow offensive start against No. 16 Drexel on Friday afternoon. A series of layups and dunks from Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn late in the first half gave the Illini the momentum they needed to push past the Dragons for good and advance to the second round of March Madness with a 78-49 win.

“Every kid dreams about playing in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve done that since they were five years old,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “So when these guys stepped out here, sure there was a little anxiety, a little nervousness. It’s nice to get back to where I think we belong, and that’s in the NCAA tournament, and we did that in a very matter-of-fact way today.”

Zach Walton put the Dragons on the board first, but a long jumper and a 3-pointer from Trent Frazier soured Drexel’s only lead of the game. The Illini used a 10-0 run, fueled by six straight points from Cockburn, to gain some early distance.

The Dragons kept up, countering Cockburn and Dosunmu’s shots. But Illini role players found their own paths to the basket, as shots from Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Da’Monte Williams and Jacob Grandison sent Illinois on an 8-0 run.

Illinois’ defense tightened back up — led by Frazier locking down Camren Wynter — allowing just four Drexel points in the final four minutes. Long balls from Frazier and Adam Miller sent the Illini into halftime with a 39-21 lead.

The Illini didn’t let up to start the second half. Instead, they stepped on the gas pedal even harder. On Drexel’s first possession, Frazier picked Xavier Bell’s pocket and made an easy basket on the other end.

“One of the things we talked about at halftime was we ended it very well,” Underwood said. “Then we had to keep the pedal now, and this is a team that really gets going from three. They’re an excellent 3-point shooting team. We felt like if we took the three away from them, we could make it very difficult. We come out right away and get a steal and an easy basket, and we’re off and running. It was very important to us, those first four minutes.”

Cockburn and Dosunmu continued their All-American show, combining for nine points through five minutes. Miller and Williams continued to fill in the gaps on offense, allowing for a 14-2 run early in the second half.

The biggest piece to Illinois’ second-half domination was the defense. Through the first eight minutes of the second half, Drexel put up just seven points on 27% shooting from the field. Frazier put the clamps on Wynter — who averages 16.8 points per game — the entire way, as Drexel’s star shooter scored just two points on 1-8 shooting through 30 minutes.

Cockburn and Curbelo traded layups and dunks in the back half of the second period to solidify Illinois’ monster victory over Drexel. While Cockburn led the way for the Illini with 18 points, Dosunmu (17), Frazier (11) and Miller (10) all scored in the double digits as well.

“You’ve got to pick your poison with us,” Underwood said. “You can’t just load up on Ayo. You can’t just load up on Kofi and say we’re gonna double team him. Da’Monte’s one of the leading 3-point shooters in America. Jake is such an explosive offensive player in his own right. Then you throw Adam and Trent in, and all of a sudden it becomes a pretty balanced attack, and that’s what we like to see.”

Illinois will head to the Round of 32 and will play the winner of No. 8 Loyola versus No. 9 Georgia Tech, who play at 4 p.m. central time Friday.

 

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