Illinois men’s basketball uses narrow first-round win to become more confident, comfortable in NCAA tournament

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Photo courtesy of @Illinimbb Instagram

Guard Andre Curbelo speaks with head coach Brad Underwood during the first round game of the NCAA Tournament against Chattanooga on Friday. Curbelo reflects on Friday”s game win and the opportunity in doing better this season than the previous one.

By Jackson Janes, Staff Writer

Illinois advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday with a 54-53 win over No. 13 Chattanooga at PPG Paints Arena in downtown Pittsburgh.

Trailing for over 38 minutes, the Illini led when it mattered most despite struggling offensively throughout the night.

“Well, we led the right 25 seconds,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “That’s the important thing.”

Whether it be nerves after an early-round upset loss against Loyola Chicago, the Mocs’ defense, little tournament experience or another factor, Illinois never got going on offense, shooting 38.8% from the field and 17.6% from beyond the 3-point line, its second-lowest mark this season.

But, the Illini “survived and advanced,” moving on to take No. 5 Houston on Sunday afternoon.

“That first game, especially in the NCAA Tournament, it’s always a tough one,” said junior center Kofi Cockburn. “It might sound cliche, but once you get that first win or you get past that first game, things don’t become easier but you’re more prepared for it mentally and you know what’s expected. 

“Right now our mindset going forward was way better than it was for the first game. We’re really confident now, the freshmen seeing what it is, and all the guys who didn’t play in the NCAA Tournament know what it is right now. It’s always good to get that first one out of the way, as tough as it always is.”

The Illini do not have as much tournament experience as the Cougars, who have made four straight appearances in the Big Dance. That streak also includes a Final Four appearance in 2021, with the Cougars coming out of the Midwest Region  the same region the Illini were in prior to falling in the second round.

Houston’s starting lineup features two seniors and two graduate students, though only senior forward Fabian White Jr. was on last season’s Final Four team among the quartet.

Illinois has made the tournament in each of the last two years, advancing to the second round of the competition for the second straight season. Despite the limited tournament experience, sophomore guard Andre Curbelo recognizes the importance of just getting a win rather than how it happened.

“A win is a win,” Curbelo said. “We enjoyed it. We celebrated it. Winning a March Madness game is big time … I wasn’t too excited just because it’s next-game mentality, but obviously I enjoyed the win, and once again, a win is a win. But next-game mentality.”

While the Illini found themselves trailing by 14 nine minutes into Friday’s meeting with the Mocs, the Cougars were rolling early against the UAB Blazers in their first-round game, leading by 13 through that same time frame.

No. 4 Illinois lived to see another day and will look to advance to its first Sweet 16 since 2005, with tipoff against No. 5 Houston scheduled for 11:10 a.m. on Sunday. The winner will move on and play either No. 1 Arizona or No. 9 TCU in San Antonio.

“Today, knowing that we’re playing tomorrow, it’s definitely a good feeling,” Curbelo said. “We’re going to come out tomorrow knowing we won the first one and knowing we have a chance to do a little bit better than we did last year and move on to the Sweet 16. Definitely going to give us a little fire, and we’re going to come out ready to play.”

For Cockburn, any game could be his last as an Illini as a decision looms for next season, and he recognized the importance of getting a win and moving on, both mentally and physically.

“When you’re playing the first game in a tournament, that’s so important,” Cockburn said. “You’re definitely all over the place, and your mind is everywhere. You’re really trying to get this one, and sometimes you’re not as composed as you should be. 

“But I think getting past that first one is really important because like I said, it gets you the opportunity to settle down and be like, ‘OK, we’re on to the next one. We got that first game. We know the balls. We know the rims.’ Now, it’s just about going out there and trying to get another one to get to the Sweet 16.”

 

@JacksonJanes3

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