Illini fall to Ramblers behind flustered offense in second round of NCAA tournament

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Photo Courtesy of Kelsea Ansfield / Illinois Athletics

Sophomore Kofi Cockburn goes up for a contested layup against Cameron Krutwig during the game against Loyola Chicago Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Illini fell to the 8-seeded Ramblers 71-58, ending their season.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS – Seven days ago, Ayo Dosunmu sat in the locker room of Lucas Oil Stadium, left hand gripping the Big Ten Tournament trophy. He was posing like the late Kobe Bryant and posted the picture on Instagram with the caption “Job not finished.”

Illinois had big hopes for this NCAA Tournament. They talked about it all year. Before they left for Indianapolis, they packed for a month, planning to be there until April when the Final Four was taking place. But Loyola Chicago played the spoiler to Illinois’ magical run. It took Illinois wire to wire, putting on a clinic, taking down Illinois, 71-58.

Just 0.6 miles of where Dosunmu was cutting down nets last Sunday, he was embracing his teammates and managers for the final time as an Illini. Dosunmu waved to his family seated in the 100 level, took off his black face mask and walked into the tunnel, donning the Illinois scripted jersey for presumably the final time.

“We wanted to win this game. We didn’t get it done” Dosunmu said. “At the end of the day, you gotta take your medicine. All the good that’s come this season, when we were at our high and we played well, we won a Big Ten championship. The lord had different plans for us now.”

The Ramblers entered the game with the nation’s No. 3 defense, and they flexed their defensive muscle early. Porter Moser’s group was flying around the court defensively, actively closing down any driving lanes. Whenever Kofi Cockburn got the ball, the Ramblers sent in defenders from all directions. The Illini big man, who has just five assists on the season, was flustered, shooting 3-8 in the first half.

The Ramblers also trapped most ball-screens involving Dosunmu as the handler. They eliminated his right hand and forced him to throw some tough skip passes, resulting in four first-half turnovers. Illinois finished the game with 17, tied for their second-highest total all season.

“You can’t turn it over 17 times in an NCAA tournament game against a good team and expect to win,” Underwood said. “Turnovers were the undoing.”

The Ramblers, led by senior Cameron Krutwig who was a key contributor on their 2018 team, had all the answers on offense early. An Adam Miller three cut the lead to six, and Loyola responded with four straight points. Giorgi Bezhanishvili cut it to 21-16, but then the Ramblers rallied for six straight. The Illini scored the last five points of the half to make it a 33-24 game, and Dosunmu hit a midrange to make it a 33-26 game, but the seesaw affair continued. Krutwig scored two more buckets to push the lead to 11.

In two seasons, it’s been a rarity for Cockburn to not be the best big in any game he’s been in, but Krutwig’s multifaceted game and combination of footwork gave Cockburn fits. He finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. Krutwig’s versatility allowed Loyola slow the tempo, limiting Illinois’ transition opportunities. The Ramblers dictated the pace.

“With Krutwig, it gets hard to take anything away because he can play at the top of the key,” Underwood said. “He’s got an unlimited dribble. As soon as you run somebody at him, he dices you with the pass.”

Ultimately, the momentum just never shifted Illinois’ way. Dosunmu got a three to fall from the right wing to cut the game to just six points with over 12 minutes remaining in the second half, but that was as close as the Illini would get. The Ramblers scattered eight straight, and the lead was back to 13.

In late-game scenarios, Illinois has been able to rely on their masked superstar, but not on Sunday. The Ramblers pressured and trapped him, forcing Dosunmu to go 4-10 with six turnovers. He didn’t get much help from his supporting cast. Seniors Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams went a combined 1-13. Andre Curbelo had nine points, but turned the ball over four times. Nothing went right for Illinois’ guards.

Dosunmu was as classy as ever in his postgame press conference. He answered the questions the right way, acknowledging the problems Illinois faced. Still, it’s a disheartening end for a team that had so much promise only seven days prior.

@BrandonSimberg

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