Notes, player grades: No. 15 Illinois men’s basketball’s late comeback falls short in home loss to No. 22 Ohio State

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Cameron Krasucki

Sophomore forward flushes a dunk during the second half of No. 15 Illinois’ 86-83 loss to No. 22 Ohio State at State Farm Center on Thursday. Hawkins had one of his best games of the season, scoring 10 points and playing solid defense all night.

By Josh Pietsch, Sports On-Air Editor

In what was the most up-and-down game of Illinois’ season, the Illini fell just short after almost completing what would have been a miracle comeback victory on Thursday night.

Illinois went up by as many as 13 in the first half, leading 21-8 around the 12-minute mark, but it was all Ohio State from there. The Buckeyes went on a 26-16 run to end the half and trailed by just one at the break.

Coming out of halftime, it was again all Buckeyes. Led by freshman guard Malaki Branham, who finished the game with 31 points, Ohio State led by as many as 16 points. The Illini were invisible offensively, and Brad Underwood was busy getting ejected by picking up two technical fouls after yelling at the refs.

The Illini trailed by 12 points with 3:31 to go, but they cut the Buckeye lead down to as little as two with under a minute left. Junior forward E.J. Liddell hit multiple clutch shots late as a part of his 21-point night, and Illinois fell just short of a miracle comeback. 

Buckeye big man Kyle Young, who is averaging just 8.5 points on the season, scored 18 off the bench and fooled Kofi Cockburn multiple times to score. 

Kofi’s worst game

Cockburn had what was easily his worst game of the season — and probably in the last two years — against the Buckeyes on Thursday. He finished with just 12 points and three rebounds while shooting an abysmal 5-15 from the field.

He missed multiple shots from point blank in the first half, and when Liddell came to double in the second half, Kofi struggled a ton and turned the ball over twice. His defense wasn’t any better, allowing Kyle Young to score 10 more than his season average. Cockburn also fouled out with 4:33 to go in the game. 

It’s very concerning that Illinois struggled to score so much when Kofi started slumping, but the big man has got to be better. Ohio State didn’t put anyone on him for significant time that was taller than 6-foot-8, and if Kofi wants to be a pro, he can’t play close to as poorly as he did against the Buckeyes.

Where’s the energy?

After Illinois went up 21-8, the energy looked lost until late in the second half. When Underwood was ejected, he gestured for the whole stadium to get as loud as humanly possible, and it wasn’t until then that the Illini started to crawl back in it.

Illinois has to stop getting comfortable when it is up big in the first half. Cincinnati. Arizona. At Purdue. Now Ohio State. All games in which Illinois led by nine or more in the first half and ended up losing.

This team is too experienced to be blowing leads consistently. Even in wins over Northwestern and Michigan State (twice), Illinois had to hold on for dear life after being up double digits in both halves in order to win. It shouldn’t take Brad blowing up to get the team hyped, and I’m looking specifically at the two super-seniors. 

Time for grades.

Alfonso Plummer: A

In better news, Alfonso Plummer broke out of his shooting slump in a major way. After not making a three for two straight games, the transfer made eight threes on Thursday, which tied for the school record.

He finished with 26 points on 8-10 shooting from three. That’s pretty darn impressive. He also was able to hit two of his eight threes in the second half on very tight coverage, helping Illinois not get blown out.

Add three boards and two assists to Plummer’s stat line to complete the night, an overall great game for Plummer. It’s a shame his teammates couldn’t have shot nearly as well, or they would have walked away with a W. 

Coleman Hawkins: A-

To stick with some good, Coleman Hawkins had a great game and was instrumental in Illinois’ comeback late. The sophomore finished with 10 points, four rebounds and two assists, and he played the five when Kofi fouled out.

Coleman also played by far the best defense on Liddell. He should have covered him more, but that’s not his fault. The shots E.J. hit over Coleman were really tough, and Hawkins gave him everything he had.

Hawkins was aggressive late, played great defense and was super impressive. He’s skinny, but he’s making his case to be the backup five and should be receiving more minutes the rest of the year regardless of if he continues to play as hard as he has been lately.

Da’Monte Williams: D

Williams wasn’t able to have a positive impact on either side of the ball for most of the game on Thursday. He had a putback dunk in the first half, but that was it for his highlights. 

He only took one shot the whole game and didn’t have an assist. Defensively, he just couldn’t cover Liddell. E.J. is taller than Da’Monte by a good three to four inches and bullied him to get better position to make shots. He had three rebounds.

If you can’t give nearly anything on offense, the defense has to be great. It’s not Williams’ fault that he’s shorter than Liddell, but he just could not hold him down.

Trent Frazier: D+

Trent’s grade would have been significantly lower if he didn’t help keep Illinois in it with a very good final few minutes, but it was ugly before then.

Frazier was stuck at two points for most of the game, and he had one of his worst games of the year defensively. Branham is a couple inches taller than Trent, and he just could not handle the freshman, allowing many of his 31 points. 

Also, on Illinois’ last real possession, Trent drove down to the hoop, didn’t go up strong and tossed the ball out of bounds, effectively ending the game barring a miracle. It was a weak possession for the fifth-year senior.

He had a couple drives and a big three late to help Illinois stay in it, but Trent needs to give more mid-game if Illinois wants a tournament run. He rarely plays poor defense, but the offense was not there when it was needed before the end.

Jacob Grandison: B

Grandison played pretty well again. He finished the game with 14 points, three rebounds, three assists and two steals.

He also played the best defense on Branham when he was finally switched onto him, adjusting nicely after getting scored on at first.

I thought he rushed one of his shots late, and he didn’t have a great first half, but overall it was a solid game for Grandison, who is still improving after a mid-season slump.

Kofi Cockburn: D

We already hit on most of it, but Kofi just had a bad game. It happens, but it’s concerning. 

Teams are going to start dubbing Kofi a lot more now, and if he can’t adjust, especially against shorter players, Illinois is in big trouble.

Andre Curbelo: B

I actually liked a lot of what I saw from Curbelo. He had seven points, three rebounds, three assists and was facilitating nicely. 

He only played 19 minutes — I think he’s still getting back into better shape — but he looked a bit like his old self when he was out there.

I expect him to be utilized more from now on, especially when he plays more minutes.

Luke Goode: B

He only played a few minutes, but it’s worth mentioning that Goode played good defense while he was in and got some big rebounds. He saved a possession late that helped Illinois climb back in it.

Omar Payne: D-

Not an important grade because he only played five minutes, but he only grabbed one rebound and very quickly picked up two fouls. He has got to learn to play defense without fouling.

Final note

I think Brad had a very bad game coaching. He didn’t give Coleman more minutes on Liddell and kept Da’Monte on him for too long. He didn’t switch Grandison onto Branham until right before he was tossed, which was a much better matchup for Illinois. And, he didn’t have Kofi adjust to play better perimeter defense on Young.

The lack of effort is not on him, but I think his ability to adjust mid-game on both sides of the ball can really hurt Illinois, like it did last year in the tournament against Loyola-Chicago. Hopefully he learns a lot, in many ways, from this game.

I think him getting tossed was a a good decision, though, and was kinda fun to watch.

@JPietsch14

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