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It’s only mid-January, but Illinois is alone in second place

#Illinutgers meant something.

Evan McClintock | The Champaign Room

March 2015. That was the LAST TIME Illinois men’s basketball was above .500 in conference play. It’s hard to fathom that they had never even been, like, 1-0 at any point in the past four-plus seasons. And with an improved Rutgers squad coming to Champaign, Brad Underwood’s Fighting Illini had a shot at being second (!) in the B1G standings.

Rutgers came in hot, winning six in a row, but was also missing second-leading scorer Geo Baker for the third straight game due to a bad thumb.

There have been a few exciting and entertaining #Illinutgers matchups in recent years, including a 110-101 triple overtime game in 2016 and 99-94 OT thriller last season. This contest was a far cry from that, but the Illini topped the Scarlet Knights, 54-51, Saturday afternoon at State Farm Center. Here are some of the key takeaways.

Ugly Shooting

BTN analyst Jess Settles repeatedly and appropriately described this game as a “rock fight.” Both teams set offensive basketball back about 40 years, especially in the first half. Rutgers and Illinois combined to shoot 15-for-58 (25.8%) in the opening stanza, with the Illini finishing a horrific 6-of-31 (19.4%). Giorgi Bezhanishvili looked bewildered, making only 2 of his 10 field goal attempts, including an airballed three and several bad misses from close range.

The Illini didn’t make their first triple until the opening possession of the second half. In fact, Illinois went through a period in which it missed 21 of 23 shots — with Ayo Dosunmu hitting both during that span. Alan Griffin was held scoreless until burying a huge three with around five minutes left.

Overall, Illinois went 18-for-63 (28.6%) from the field and just 2-of-14 from beyond the arc, but made its buckets when it mattered most.

You have to credit both defenses for clogging the lane and forcing plenty of bad shots. But, damn...this game was very difficult to watch.

Kofi Doing Kofi Things

Kofi Cockburn may not be the best freshman in the B1G, but I believe he’s the most impactful. The giant Jamaican showcased his size and strength advantage in the low post, finishing with 11 points and 17 rebounds. That output gave Kofi his seventh double-double this season, an Illinois freshman record.

The Illini made him a focal point early and often, even attempting an alley-oop pass following the opening tap. Kofi affected the game from beginning to end. It didn’t really matter who Rutgers put up against him. The Scarlet Knights tried to limit Kofi’s offensive effectiveness by frequently fouling him before he could shoot. Cockburn only attempted eight shots, but converted five of his six free throw attempts.

More Feliz, Please!

Last season, Andres Feliz embodied the toughness that Underwood seeks from his teams. Feliz was usually depended on to attack the basket and hit clutch shots late. Those moments had been sparse this year...until Saturday. The senior point guard connected on several key layups in the second half, confidently driving to the hoop and either breaking a tie or extending Illinois’ lead.

Fans have been clamoring for someone to make an impact off the bench (well, as long as that someone isn’t Alan Griffin). Here’s hoping we can get this version of Feliz as the season rolls on.

Obviously, Rutgers is far from the doormat we’ve become accustomed to seeing. Head coach Steve Pikiell has the Scarlet Knights trending in the right direction, and The State University of New Jersey could make the NCAA Tournament field for the first time since 1991.

The Fighting Illini look to stretch their winning streak to four when they host in-state rival Northwestern on Saturday.