Melendez, Podziemski step up as veterans struggle in Illinois men’s basketball’s narrow win over Northwestern


Photo courtesy of Illini Athletics

RJ Melendez dunks the basketball during the first half of the game between No. 24 Illinois and Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston on Saturday afternoon. Melendez scored six points in the Illini’s 59-56 win.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

When your best shooters struggle, that typically is a recipe for disaster. 

Fifth-year senior guard Trent Frazier, who had scored double-digit points in six straight games heading into Saturday’s contest, finished with just six points and shot 2-10 from the field. After hitting two early triples, Frazier went 0-6 and recorded three turnovers as the Northwestern student section chanted, “airball,” any time he touched the ball.

Frazier was not the only Illini to struggle against the Wildcats, as graduate student guards Alfonso Plummer and Jacob Grandison shot a combined 3-12 from the field, though the former finished with nine points and sealed the victory with three late free throws.

Junior center Kofi Cockburn, returning from a two-game absence due to being in concussion protocol, did not seem to miss a beat. He scored 22 points on 10-17 shooting while also grabbing nine rebounds and recording a block.

Even with Cockburn’s big night, the Illini needed a little extra production. With three of its veterans struggling to produce on offense, Illinois got that much-needed production from a seemingly unlikely source: its least experienced players, freshmen guards RJ Melendez and Brandin Podziemski.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

“It felt great,” Melendez said when reflecting on the pair’s second-half contributions. “I’m just proud of both of us. Just being on the court at the same time, crunch time, and it’s just something we’ve been waiting on. The opportunity just came, and we took care of it.”

Melendez entered the game with 11:08 to play in the first half and soon made his first big play, grabbing an offensive rebound before turning toward the basket and finishing high off the glass to extend the Illini lead to 17-7.

One minute later, he got on the score sheet once again. After junior forward Omar Payne grabbed a defensive board, he found Grandison, who made a half-court pass to a sprinting Melendez in transition. The Puerto Rico native finished the play with a confident and emphatic dunk, and Illinois was back up by double digits.

“All that confidence comes from practice,” Melendez said. “Working on your game, after practice doing a little extra work. It’s just keeping that mindset that any time your time can come, just still stay ready every time, go hard in warmups and just be ready.”

After Northwestern opened the second half on a 17-9 run to take a three-point lead, its first of the afternoon, eight minutes into the frame, Melendez converted two free throws to bring him up to six points, tying his career high.

Podziemski did not play in the first half and got his first minutes of the night with eight minutes remaining and Illinois trailing by six, its largest deficit of the contest. 

Immediately after entering the game, Podziemski cut to the lane, where Melendez found him under the basket. Finishing with his left hand, the Wisconsin native recorded his first points since Jan. 4 to reduce the Wildcat lead to 46-42.

Now down by five and needing a spark, the Illini got production from Podziemski once again, this time from deep. Illinois had hit just one trey up to that point in the half, but the freshman connected from the top of the arc with 5:11 to play, bringing Illini fans inside Welsh-Ryan Arena to their feet.

Though neither player scored after that basket, Illinois head coach Brad Underwood opted to bring Podziemski into the game in crunch time with under a minute to play.

“I know it’s made me feel really comfortable,” Underwood said of his freshmen players. “Those guys are really tough, and if they continue to work and battle, I think that helps us become a better basketball team.”

Though the third freshman on the team, guard Luke Goode, struggled, going 0-1 and only playing five minutes, Melendez and Podziemski played 16 and six minutes, respectively, and combined to score 11 points on 4-7 shooting, three rebounds and two assists.

“My time just came today, so I just took care of it,” Melendez said. “I’m really happy about the job that me and the freshmen and all the veterans did today.”



[email protected]