Illinois men’s basketball nearly blows double-digit lead, grinds out win over Northwestern


Cameron Krasucki

Freshman guard RJ Melendez dunks the ball during the first half of Illinois men’s basketball’s game against Northwestern at State Farm Center on Feb. 2.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

Illinois nearly let a double-digit second-half lead slip away, but it hung on and hit free throws late to take down Northwestern, 73-66, at State Farm Center on Sunday afternoon.

Junior center Kofi Cockburn and graduate student guard Alfonso Plummer both recorded a game-high 19 points, while freshman guard RJ Melendez scored a career-high 14 points in the Illini’s seven-point win.

The Illini struggled offensively against the Wildcats during their first meeting on Jan. 29, but Illinois got right to work early. 

Cockburn opened the scoring with a layup on his team’s opening possession, and eight points over the next three minutes from Plummer gave the Illini a 12-4 lead less than four minutes into the contest.

Melendez provided a spark off the bench, hitting two triples less than 60 seconds apart to extend Illinois’ lead to double digits, 18-5.

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The offense ran through Cockburn, and five straight points from the Illini big man helped the hosts maintain their 13-point advantage halfway through the opening period of play.

The Illini dominated from the 3-point line, with Plummer and senior guard Da’Monte Williams hitting triples in the final 10 minutes of the first half. Illinois went 9-16 from deep at the half.

Illinois headed into the break with a 14-point advantage, 44-30, with Plummer leading all scorers with 16 points. Cockburn added nine points on 4-6 shooting, while Northwestern senior forward Pete Nance had a team-high eight points on 50% shooting.

Both teams struggled out of the break. Northwestern opened the scoring with a layup, but a 6-0 Illinois run via points from Cockburn, junior center Omar Payne and Melendez extended the hosts’ lead to 18, their largest of the afternoon. 

The Illini offense went cold soon after, though. Down 18, Northwestern used a 22-5 run over eight minutes to cut its lead to a single point. Sophomore guard Ty Berry was crucial for the Wildcats during that stretch, scoring eight points.

After going over five minutes without a basket, Illinois snapped Northwestern’s lengthy run with an and-one layup from Cockburn, pushing the Illini’s lead back up to four points. 

Redshirt junior guard Chase Audige hit two free throws for the Wildcats to cut their deficit to two points before three straight points from Cockburn extended the Illini’s advantage to five. 

With their lead back down to three points, the Illini used free throws from senior guard Trent Frazier and Melendez, which brought his total to a career-high 10 points, to extend their lead to 65-58 with under three minutes to play.

The Wildcats continued to battle, but two more free throws from Melendez and a Cockburn layup helped maintain the Illini’s seven-point advantage with less than two minutes remaining.

A 4-0 Northwestern run over the next 60 seconds cut the Wildcats’ deficit to three points with 25 seconds to play. 



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