‘I missed that’: Cockburn, Curbelo rise to the occasion, dominate in second half at Michigan

Junior+center+Kofi+Cockburn+celebrates+in+the+second+half+of+Illinois%E2%80%99+93-85+win+at+Michigan+on+Sunday+at+Crisler+Arena+in+Ann+Arbor%2C+Michigan.+The+consensus+All-American+will+forego+his+senior+year+and+declare+for+the+NBA+draft.

Photo Courtesy of Illinois Athletics

Junior center Kofi Cockburn celebrates in the second half of Illinois’ 93-85 win at Michigan on Sunday at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The consensus All-American will forego his senior year and declare for the NBA draft.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

When junior center Kofi Cockburn announced his decision to return to Illinois for a third season, there was tons of national hype around this Illini squad. Ranked 11th in the first Associated Press top-25 poll, Illinois boasted a deep, experienced roster with a strong incoming freshmen class, several veterans returning and two highly touted incoming transfers.

One of the most exciting elements of the team, though, was the partnership of Cockburn and 2021 Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year sophomore guard Andre Curbelo, as the duo’s pick-and-roll game was one of several elements that made the Illini one of the best teams in the country last season. 

But, things have not gone according to plan. Cockburn was suspended for the first three games of the regular season, and Curbelo missed 11 games with a concussion, meaning the pair played limited minutes together early in the year.

Though Curbelo and Cockburn have now returned and are contributing on both ends of the floor, the sophomore guard is still playing limited minutes as he readjusts to the high level he played at last season. On Sunday, however, the Illini got a glimpse at what the dynamic duo is capable of, as they combined for 29 of the team’s 47 second-half points while missing just two combined field-goal attempts.

“I missed that, man,” Cockburn said. “I missed those lane passes, those dump-offs to me. He’s incredible at just creating opportunities at the rim. … His vision for the game and his IQ is incredible.”

Both players struggled early, with Cockburn recording eight first-half points on 4-for-7 shooting and Curbelo registering two points while taking two shots. They both flipped a switch and sparked the offense in the second half, something fifth-year senior Trent Frazier praised in his postgame media session.

“He was awesome tonight, getting in the paint, making plays, but just working his way back,” Frazier said. “He’s good for us, and that’s gonna help us get better.”

Curbelo’s defensive intensity has been a factor all season, and he put his body on the line on Sunday. With the Wolverines slowly chipping away at their deficit with under 14 minutes to play, 7-foot-1 Michigan center Hunter Dickinson drove to the basket after beating Cockburn, his defender.

Despite being one foot shorter and weighing 85 pounds less than Dickinson, Curbelo put his body on the line and drew a charge, a play that sparked a 4-0 Illini run to push the visitors’ lead back up to double digits.

“I thought Andre Curbelo was ‘Belo, the one we all know,” Underwood said. “I thought he was special, especially on the defensive end. One thing we have missed with ‘Dre is what he does defensively. It’s all intangible things.”

With Curbelo getting back to his normal level of play, Cockburn bounced back after struggling in Illinois’ 86-83 to Ohio State on Thursday. Though the Illini big man dominated the paint all night, a late-game jumper in the paint sealed the deal for Illinois in Ann Arbor.

With two minutes left on the clock, Michigan cut its deficit to two points, the fewest margin since the 11:46 mark in the first half. Desperately needing a basket with the Wolverines on a 9-1 run, Cockburn caught a pass from graduate student forward Jacob Grandison in the paint with his back to the basket, spun around and hit a floater to extend Illinois’ lead to 84-80 with 1:46 to play.

Though that was just one of Cockburn’s 11 baskets, as he finished with a game-high 27 points, it showcased how dominant the Jamaica native is even when playing against a center his size, a rarity in college basketball. With Cockburn back to his usual self and Curbelo slowly returning to his freshman form, the Illini head into the final week of the regular season looking to lock up a double bye in the Big Ten tournament and potentially a share of the regular-season conference title.

“Whenever I have the opportunity, I’m gonna take it,” Curbelo said. “If it’s there, it’s there and if not like we did today … I was able to shoot a layup, so it’s an advantage of having a guy like me.”

@JacksonJanes3

[email protected]