Late offensive spark not enough as No. 12 Illinois men’s basketball loses to Rutgers away from home

Coleman+Hawkins+dribbles+to+the+rim+during+Illinois+game+against+Rutgers+on+Dec.+3+at+State+Farm+Center+in+Champaign.+The+Illini+fell+behind+early+and+never+caught+up%2C+losing%2C+70-59.

Cameron Krasucki

Coleman Hawkins dribbles to the rim during Illinois’ game against Rutgers on Dec. 3 at State Farm Center in Champaign. The Illini fell behind early and never caught up, losing, 70-59.

By Christian Jones, Staff Writer

No. 13 Illinois traveled to Piscataway, New Jersey, to take on unranked Rutgers on Wednesday night in a game with serious implications on the Big Ten standings.

Rutgers (15-9, 9-5) had won three straight games coming into Wednesday, all against ranked teams, but remained tied for fifth in the Big Ten. Illinois (18-6, 11-3) held a half-game lead over Purdue for first place in the conference. When the two teams last met in early December, the Illini won by 35. 

Junior center Kofi Cockburn won the tip, but he tipped the ball out of bounds, certainly a sign of things to come. Rutgers scored twice before Cockburn threw in an and-one dunk over Rutgers guard Paul Mulcahy.

The Illini struggled as the Scarlet Knights’ defense rotated well early and forced them into tough shots on multiple possessions. Cockburn took two mid-range jump shots early, one of which airballed.

Cockburn had no problem scoring in the post when the ball got to him, but he was the only Illinois player to score in the first six minutes of the game. 

After Cockburn scored his seventh points of the first half, Rutgers led 8-7. The Scarlet Knights would then go on a 9-0 run before junior center Omar Payne caught a lob pass from sophomore guard Andre Curbelo, making the score 17-9 with 14 minutes to go in the half.

Rutgers guard/forward Ron Harper Jr. scored nine in the first half to lead the Scarlet Knights, followed by Mulcahy, who scored eight points and distributed the ball well in first. As a team, Rutgers shot just 40% from the field in the first half but led, 33-24, over the Illini.

Illinois made just one three in the first half despite attempting 14. Cockburn led the Illini in the first with 11 points and five rebounds. Senior guard Trent Frazier scored five points and grabbed three steals, and he made Illinois’ only three of the half.

The Illini started the second half on a good note, but thereafter they were out of tune. Graduate student forward Jacob Grandison hit a three for the first points of the half, though those were the last points he scored all night.

Over the next seven minutes the Illini did not score a single field goal. Rutgers went on a 14-1 run, breaking the game open. The Illini went 1-5 from the free-throw line in that time, with their lone point scored by Cockburn. 

Rutgers continued to deny Illinois good looks on the perimeter. On offense the Scarlet Knights kept chugging along. Sophomore center Clifford Omuruyi scored six points in the early half run that left the score at 47-28 in favor of the hosts.

The Illini finally scored again with 12 minutes left in the game as Cockburn received a pass from Curbelo and dunked it. But Illinois struggles did not end here. They were able to cut the lead to 12 before the trio of Harper Jr., Mulcahy and Geo Baker extended it to 23, the largest advantage of the night. 

With seven minutes left in the game, Rutgers led 60-37 and Illini freshman guard RJ Melendez had just checked in. Over the next six minutes, Melendez scored 10 points, grabbed two rebounds and recorded a steal. 

His late-game heroics, which include one 3-pointer, helped Illinois bring the game within nine points late. A sophomore forward Coleman Hawkins three capped off the run, which left the score at 66-57, but in the end it was too little too late.

Rutgers was victorious with a final score of 70-59. 

Cockburn led all scorers with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Frazier scored 11 with four rebounds, four assists and four steals.

Harper Jr. led Rutgers in scoring with 16 points and eight rebounds. Mulcahy had scored 13 points with seven assists.

 

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