Illinois men’s basketball struggles to keep up with high-energy Houston, falls in the second round of NCAA tournament


Cameron Krasucki

Junior forward Kofi Cockburn stands during Illinois’ 74-72 win over Iowa at State Farm Center on March 6. The Illini lost to the Houston Cougars in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Sunday in Pittsburgh.

By Christian Jones, Staff Writer

No. 4 Illinois took on No. 5 Houston in round two of the NCAA tournament on Sunday at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. The Illini could not match the Cougars’ pace and energy, falling 68-53 and ending their season in the second round for a second straight season.

Illinois won the tip, but Houston came out the gates stronger at the start.

After sophomore forward Coleman Hawkins opened the scoring with a three, Houston sophomore guard Jamal Shead connected on a jumper to cut the lead to one, and graduate student guard Taze Moore stole the ball from Illini fifth-year senior guard Da’Monte WIlliams on the next play and scored on the break, giving Houston a one-point lead.

Fifth-year senior guard Trent Frazier made a long two to take the lead back with 16 minutes left on the clock, but that was the last Illinois basket for the next four minutes.

With 12 minutes left on the clock, junior center Kofi Cockburn scored his first basket of the night from five feet away, but the Cougars would start at 11-2 run shortly after. 

Senior guard Kyler Edwards started the run for the Cougars with a pull-up three that captured the lead. Moore and graduate student forward Josh Carlton then worked to extend the lead, scoring four points each.

When a media timeout was called with 7:23 to go, Illinois trailed 16-9. At that point, neither team had scored since the 10-minute mark.

The Illini were aggressive throughout the drought but could not connect. They shot 1-9 from behind the arc in the first 15 minutes and 22% from the field.

After Cockburn intercepted a bad pass by Moore in the paint, the Illini raced down the floor and got him the ball in the paint. He was fouled while shooting, and after extended protest from head coach Brad Underwood, the officials reviewed the play and changed it to a flagrant.

Cockburn made both, and Illinois received possession, but on the inbound Cockburn turned it over and Edwards hit a quick three to negate the previous play. Shortly after, sophomore guard Andre Curbelo turned the ball over and Edwards scored again, forcing Underwood to call another timeout as Houston led, 21-11.

A pair of Illini freshmen checked into the game with five minutes left in the first half, as Underwood looked for a way to ignite a run. Guards Luke Goode and RJ Melendez checked in and made an immediate impact.

Melendez, who had played a few minutes earlier in the game, stayed completely vertical as Moore attacked the basket, forcing a miss. On the other end, he bounced a perfect entry pass to Cockburn, who scored Illinois’ first field goal in over five minutes.

Trailing 23-13 with three minutes remaining in the first, Illinois ran a play for Goode coming out of a timeout. Goode connected on his first attempt of the game from behind the arc. 

On Illinois’ next offensive possession, Melendez drove hard to the paint, scoring and drawing the foul. He also made the and-one free throw.

After Moore forced a quick jumper, Melendez snagged the rebound and raced down the court. He dished the ball to Frazier open on the wing, and a foul was called on the shot. Frazier made just one of three free throws.

Fortunately the freshman phenoms still had more in the tank. Frazier found an open Luke Goode at the top of the key, and Goode nailed another one, bringing Illinois within five points.

In the last minute of the half, Houston extended the lead to seven after Moore was fouled on a jump shot, but Frazier snagged the momentum on the other end.

With four seconds left in the half, Frazier caught the ball, sprinted up the court and splashed a triple as the buzzer sounded, capping a 15-7 run by the Illini to end the half.

At half, Houston led 30-26.

Houston started the second half with possession of the ball, but Frazier stole the ball from Jamal Shead 30 seconds into the half. Shead immediately fouled him in frustration. On the other end, Frazier got the ball to Cockburn in the paint immediately, he was fouled and made both free throws.

After Kyler Edwards turned the ball over in the paint, Illinois went to Cockburn again and he scored again, tying the game at 30-30.

Houston scored four points on the possessions while the Illini scored none, and five-second violation gave Houston an extra possession with a 34-30 lead and 16 minutes left on the clock.

The Illini forced a stop, and Frazier found Cockburn in the paint on an inbound play, leading to a slam dunk over senior forward Reggie Chaney. 

After graduate student guard Alfonso Plummer went 1-2 at the free-throw line, Illinois trailed, 36-33. Williams would then turn the ball over on an inbound pass, leading to a Moore bucket on the other end.

Cockburn found his way to the line once again and made both, and following a defensive stop, Illinois cut the lead to one when Melendez finished a contested layup over a defender as the shot clock ran out.

A few plays later, Melendez had the ball at the end of the shot clock again, this time he found Plummer in the corner for a three that thies the game at 40 with 11 minutes to go. 

Down six, Illinois got a break when Plummer stole the ball and hit Melendez on the break. Melendez dunked in transition but a tech was called after he hung on the rim. Shead made the free throw, giving Houston the 47-42 lead.

After Edwards missed a three, Frazier found Cockburn in the paint, and he scored despite a foul. He then made his seventh straight free throw.

Moore scored again for Houston, and Edwards put in his third three of the night, giving Houston a seven-point lead. Shead then scored to stretch the lead to nine and force Underwood to call a timeout with 5:44 remaining.

Plummer ended Illinois’ three-minute scoring drought when he drained a three while being fouled. He made the free throw, cutting the lead to five. But the duo of Shead and Moore would not let Illinois get too close.

They scored back-to-back baskets, pushing the lead to nine again. Cockburn was called for a foul after losing the ball, and Houston was awarded the one-and-one. Senior forward Fabian White Jr. made both free throws, giving Houston a 60-49 lead.

Another empty possession for Illinois led to an open three for White, and Illinois never brought the lead under 10 again. To add insult to injury, Edwards drained a three with 20 seconds remaining. 

Cockburn led the team with 19 points and 8 rebounds, and he went 7-7 from the line.

Melendez made an impact off the bench, scoring nine points to go with two rebounds and three assists.

Frazier, Williams and Plummer struggled. They shot a combined 4-18 from the field and 3-14 from behind the arc.



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