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Illini overcome dreadful start, top Penn State 98-81

It wasn’t always pretty, but a W is a W.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Better late then never for the Illini.

Three days after losing by three points to now-No. 11 Rutgers, Illinois found itself down by as many as 15 points early in the first half against Penn State. But the No. 18 team in the country overcame the adversity this time on the road, topping Penn State 98-81 Wednesday night in Happy Valley.

The Nittany Lions (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten) had no answer for Kofi Cockburn all game long. The sophomore was virtually unguardable, scoring 23 points on 11-of-13 shooting.

Illinois (6-3, 2-1 Big Ten) got off to a horrific start, but the Andre Curbelo to Cockburn connection kept Illinois in the game. Curbelo assisted on three of Cockburn’s early buckets, as the freshman finished with 15 points and 8 assists.

Cockburn scored 10 of the Illini’s first 12 points — and the Illini were able to claw their way back into the game as the first half continued. A couple of buckets and six made threes allowed Illinois to take the lead after the under 4-minute media timeout.

The Illini and Nittany Lions traded blows the rest of the first half and went into the break tied at 43.

“The first 13 minutes were a struggle defensively,” said Illinois head coach Brad Underwood after the win. “And then the last seven were really good.”

In the second half, Ayo Dosunmu took over. The preseason All-American finished the contest with 30 points (21 in the second half) helping Illinois to turn its big deficit into a 17-point win.

“I’m going to keep saying it,” Underwood said. “He’s the best guard in the country.”

Passing was an area of the game where Illinois excelled on Wednesday. The Illini had three players with four or more assists — Trent Frazier, Dosunmu and Curbelo.

The game was tied at 54 with over 14 minutes left, but an 8-0 run from the Illini gave them a lead they would not relinquish. But the game’s final minute did take a little longer after Dosunmu was ejected for approaching Jamari Wheeler following a whistle. Wheeler was given one technical foul, but fouled out on the same play.

“It’s not what we’re about. It’s the emotion of the game” Underwood said. “We all know Ayo is a young man that is first-class, and yet he felt like he was standing up for a teammate.”

SOUND SMART

  • Kofi Cockburn did not record a rebound until early in the second half. He was a perfect 8-of-8 shooting up to that point.
  • Myreon Jones had 11 of Penn State’s first 13 points to open the game.
  • Ayo Dosunmu scored at least 20 points for the sixth time this season and over 30 points for the second time this season (nine games total).

STAT STUFFERS

  • Ayo Dosunmu: 30 points, six rebounds, five assists
  • Kofi Cockburn: 23 points, six rebounds
  • Andre Curbelo: 13 points, eight assists
  • Izaiah Brockington: 21 points

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

The freshman is a wizard with the basketball:

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS

Look at this pass from Curbelo:

TWEET OF THE GAME

Baby Shaq? We’ll take it:

HE SAID IT

Transfer Jacob Grandison on Ayo Dosunmu’s second half: “It was just Ayo being Ayo.”

UP NEXT

The season continues for the No. 18 Illini on Saturday when they host Indiana at State Farm Center at 3 p.m.