Andre Curbelo makes surprise return, dazzles at home against Purdue


Photo Courtesy of Illinois Athletics

Andre Curbelo dribbles the ball and drives to the paint during Illinois’ game against Purdue at State Farm Center on Monday. Curbelo made a surprise return, scoring 20 points in the Illini’s 96-88 loss.

By Christian Jones, Staff Writer

Illinois head coach Brad Underwood had a card up his sleeve as Purdue came into town on Monday morning. After missing the last 11 games, Andre Curbelo returned to put on a show in Champaign, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Purdue’s triumphant trio.

Purdue (15-2) scrapped out a double-overtime win, 96-88, behind a combined 61 points from Jaden Ivey, Zach Edey and Sasha Stefanovic. A surprise return by Curbelo almost tipped the scales.

Illinois (13-4) trailed by 11 to start the second half, and Curbelo’s late-game heroics allowed them to stall defeat on two separate occasions. He added six points in the last 2:25 of regulation, giving him 16 at that point in the game

He scored on a turnaround fade from mid-range, his signature shot, followed by a reverse layup over the 7-foot-4 Edey, after spinning past Stefanovic as the clock ticked down to 14.1 seconds. Curbelo finished the game with 20 points, six rebounds and three assists in 25 minutes, though he wasn’t supposed to play nearly that much.

“He’s literally practiced twice,” head coach Brad Underwood said. “He’s in horrific shape, horrible shape, but he’s a good athlete. You’re talking about a young man that has done very little in the past six to eight weeks and impacted the game on a very high level.”

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    Underwood said he planned on playing Curbelo just six to eight minutes off the bench Monday, but he left him in late because it was “in the flow of the game.”

    Very few people knew that Curbelo would be available at all on Monday, including Purdue head coach Matt Painter. As a result of Underwood’s sneakiness, Painter said the Boilermakers were forced to make in-game adjustments to guard last year’s Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year.

    The adjustments didn’t seem to have much of an effect on Curbelo, certainly not as much as fatigue. His scoring tailed off in the two overtimes, where he scored just four points in eight minutes. 

    The bulk of his scoring, 14 points, came in the second half, as he shot five for six from the field and 4-4 from the free-throw line. He also grabbed four rebounds and dished out an assist.

    Curbelo’s stellar performance comes amid a growing belief among a vocal group of Illinois fans that the team benefited from his absence. On Monday, Curbelo showed just how far from the truth that is.

    In a game in which junior Kofi Cockburn struggled mightily, Curbelo conducted the offense into a groove that we haven’t seen this season without Cockburn on the floor. 

    Cockburn got into foul trouble early, receiving his fourth foul just three minutes into the second half. He would eventually foul out in overtime after playing just eight minutes in the second half. Cockburn finished with just 10 points and five rebounds, ending his nine-game double-double streak.

    With Cockburn on the bench, sophomore Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk stepped up and had his best game of the season.

    No one benefited from Curbelo’s return more than Bosmans-Verdonk. Curbelo’s hawk-like vision and extreme ball control on passes allowed him to find Bosmans-Verdonk in places that no other Illini has been able to this year. Though he scored just four points, Bosmans-Verdonk found himself much more involved in the offense.

    A few Curbelo-to-Bosmans-Verdonk pick-and-rolls put the redshirt sophomore center in a position to make decisions.

    This is not the norm for him. Usually tasked with the dirty work, Bosmans-Verdonk was able to move the ball on Monday. At one point he even passed up a wide open dunk, passed to a teammate on the perimeter, who passed to another who hit a three.

    “I miss having him on the court,” Bosmans-Verdonk said of Curbelo. “It has just been different without him. We’ve been doing good and we’ve been winning, but as you saw today, Andre’s a tremendous player and having him back just adds another weapon to our team.”

    Bosmans-Verdonk also played a crucial role in halting Purdue’s offense by stifling Purdue’s talented bigs, Edey and Williams.

    Purdue sophomore Zach Edey was dominant in the first half, scoring with ease over Cockburn and Omar Payne. However, his scoring slowed down immensely in the second. Despite infrequent double-teaming by Illinois, Purdue rarely went to Edey early in the second half.

    Edey scored 14 points in the first half, six in the second and none in overtime.

    Alfonso Plummer and Trent Fraizer added to 24 and 16 points, respectively, carrying the Illini from deep with eight threes between the two of them, and several of those buckets were assisted by Curbelo.

    “I feel like he’s one of the best point guards in the nation,” Plummer said. 



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