Illinois men’s basketball survives upset bid from Chattanooga, wins on late free throws in NCAA tournament first round


Cameron Krasucki

The Illini huddle during their Big Ten tournament loss to Indiana in Indianapolis on March 11.

By Jackson Janes, Staff Writer

Despite trailing for over 38 minutes and leading for just 25 seconds, Illinois did just enough and hit its free throws late to beat a tough Chattanooga squad in Pittsburgh, 54-53.

“Survive and advance,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “That’s pretty much the theme of that game.”

Chattanooga got going early, opening the game on a 14-3 run less than five minutes in. The Illini could not force any stops, while the offense struggled to find a groove.

The Mocs extended their lead to 20-6 four minutes later, their largest advantage of the first half, while eight different players scored during that run. Illinois went nearly five minutes without a field goal, before a dunk from junior center Kofi Cockburn ended that drought.

Down by 14, the Illini slowly started to settle in, using a 10-2 run over the next five minutes to cut their deficit to six, with Cockburn, junior center Omar Payne, sophomore guard Andre Curbelo and sophomore forward Coleman Hawkins accounting for Illinois’ points during that stretch.

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Five straight points from the Mocs put them back up by double digits, but a 9-0 run, this time fueled by baskets from Curbelo and Cockburn, cut the Illini deficit to two points, their smallest deficit in over 15 minutes of play.

Chattanooga closed the half on a 6-4 run and headed into the break with a 33-29 lead. Cockburn led all scorers with 13 points, while sophomore guard Malachi Smith had a team-high eight points for Chattanooga.

“Our offense was anemic,” Underwood said. “We were rushed. We didn’t execute anything. In the first half, when we did, we got good looks, but it was a night that 3 for 17 from the three, I hope those don’t come along very often. That’s not us.”

The Mocs got into foul trouble in the first half, with the three big men tasked with guarding Cockburn all had at least two fouls at the break: Graduate student forwards Silvio De Sousa and Josh Ayeni each had three, while graduate student center Avery Diggs had two.

Entering the second half with a four-point edge, Chattanooga used a 7-0 run over the first three minutes of the period to extend its lead back to double digits.

The Illini did not let that last for long, though, bringing the intensity on defense to hold the Mocs without a basket for over seven minutes.

Illinois used a 10-0 run during that stretch to cut its deficit to one point, with graduate student guard Alfonso Plummer hitting two 3-pointers, the Illini’s first of the game. 

Neither team was able to pull away over the next five minutes, but a 4-0 Illini run cut what was one a five-point deficit back down to one on a Hawkins dunk with just over two minutes to play.

After Hawkins was fouled with 48 seconds to play, he missed the front end of a one-and-one before Cockburn grabbed the offensive rebound and finished the putback to give the Illini their first lead of the evening,

On Chattanooga’s next possession, Smith was fouled driving to the basket and made his two free throws to put the Mocs back in front with 32 seconds to play.

The Illini’s next possession saw Plummer get fouled and make his two free throws to retake a one-point lead, 54-53, with 12 seconds to play.

Hawkins came up with a block on the Mocs’ last possession before Smith missed a jumper as time expired as the Illini’s escaped with a narrow, one-point win.

Cockburn led all scorers with 17 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, while Plummer finished with 15 points, 13 of which came in the second half.

The Illini big man attempted 10 free throws in the win and was fouled 11 times, though he says he is used to the more physical play now.

“It wasn’t frustrating,” Cockburn said. “I’ve been going through that all year. Probably all my whole career. I think it was just another challenge. This is the NCAA tournament, and things get tough. Coach reminds us things get tougher each week, each game.

“So just gotta be prepared for that and stay mentally locked in, don’t allow myself to be a weakness to the team. Just keep my head up and keep trying to win.”

Illinois advances to the second round for a second consecutive season, and it will take on either No. 5 Houston or No. 12 UAB at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh on Sunday.

“I’ve tried to build this thing around the fact that when you have nights like this in the NCAA tournament, and you don’t shoot the ball well, and we shot 34%, when you don’t shoot, how do you advance?” Underwood said. “Tonight we found a way to do that. And that’s what this thing is truly all about: It’s being able to guard, being tough enough, being able to make plays and make a stop when you have to to win a game in the NCAA tournament.”



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