Illinois men’s basketball escapes Evanston with 59-56 win behind Cockburn’s dominance in return

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Photo Courtesy of Illinois Athletics

Junior center Kofi Cockburn dunks the ball during the first half of the game between No. 24 Illinois and Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston on Saturday afternoon.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

Behind a big second half from junior center Kofi Cockburn in his return from concussion, Illinois escaped Evanston with a 59-56 win despite shooting struggles from other key starters.

Illinois’ offense got off to a fast start, with a Cockburn dunk opening the scoring just over 90 seconds into the game before a triple from graduate student guard Alfonso Plummer gave the Illini a 5-0 lead two minutes into the contest.

After Northwestern senior forward Pete Nance opened the home side’s scoring, Illinois used a second 5-0 run, this one fueled by a triple from senior guard Trent Frazier and a floater in the paint from sophomore forward Coleman Hawkins, to give the visitors a 10-2 advantage through six minutes.

A 5-3 Wildcat run cut their deficit to six, but the Illini quickly answered with a Cockburn dunk and a second-chance layup from freshman guard RJ Melendez, who got his own miss and finished off the glass. Halfway through the first half, Illinois led, 17-7.

Though the Wildcats went over seven minutes without a field goal, four free throws canceled out a Melendez fast-break dunk and Cockburn fadeaway jumper as the shot clock expired, keeping the Illini’s lead at 10 with six minutes to play.

An 8-2 Northwestern stretch over the final 5:15 of the half sent Illinois into halftime with a five-point advantage, 24-19. Cockburn led the Illini with eight points and five rebounds, but the team went 10-28 from the field and 3-11 from the 3-point lead. 

Fouls were an issue once again for the Illini, as the Wildcats were in the bonus for the final 9:20 of the first half, and Northwestern took advantage by going 5-7 from the line.

Cockburn got right back to work in the second half, scoring the Illini’s first five points of the frame via a layup, a jumper and a free throw to extend Illinois’ lead to eight points.

Northwestern responded, though, using an 8-0 to tie the game for the first time since the opening 94 seconds of play. Wildcat junior guard Boo Buie scored six of the eight points during that stretch.

After Illinois briefly retook the lead on another Cockburn layup, Northwestern took its first lead of the afternoon on a triple from sophomore guard Ty Berry with 14:25 to play in the second half. The Wildcats extended their lead to 34-31 on a graduate student forward Elyjah Williams 90 seconds later, sending the student section into a frenzy.

The Illini took another lead on a pair of Melendez free throws, but a 10-3 stretch from the Wildcats gave the home side a six-point advantage, its largest of the game.

An 11-5 Illinois run put the visitors right back in and tied the game at 51 with under four minutes to play. Five points from freshman guard Brandin Podziemski during that stretch were huge for Illinois.

A jumper from Northwestern redshirt junior Chase Audige briefly gave the Wildcats a two-point lead. After both teams came up empty on their next possessions, a Cockburn layup and a putback dunk from senior guard Da’Monte Williams, his first field goal in three games, saw the Illini take a 55-53 lead with 90 seconds to play.

Nance missed a jumper on the next Northwestern possession, and Cockburn split a pair of free throws to extend the Illinois advantage to three points with 63 seconds left on the clock.

Northwestern again couldn’t convert, and Plummer sealed the victory with free throws to send Illinois back to Champaign with a gritty, narrow win.

Cockburn finished the night with a game-high 22 points on 10-17 shooting and nine rebounds. Nance led the way with 21 points for Northwestern.

 

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