EVANSTON, Ill. — Sometimes you just have to leave it to your playmakers to go out there and make plays.
That’s exactly what Illinois head coach Brad Underwood did as Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn, and Alan Griffin led the way for the Illini in a 74-66 win over Northwestern on Thursday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston.
With the victory, Illinois (19-9, 11-6) slides back into a four-way tie with Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin for second place in the Big Ten. It secures an above .500 finish in conference for the first time since 2010 and 11 Big Ten wins — the first time the Illini have reached that mark since 2009.
After a streak of seven-straight wins followed by four-straight losses, the Illini are now back in the win column for the third game in a row.
“We’re better. We went through that losing streak. We went through adversity. We know how it feels,” Dosunmu said. “We stayed together. We stayed with it. Now, we’re just trying to get better and better each game.”
Both teams got off to a quick start, but it was Cockburn and Dosunmu who found their grooves first. The pair combined for 20 of the Illini’s first 22 points.
“I thought [Cockburn’s] dominance early was huge,” Underwood said. “That’s growth. We forget Kofi’s a freshman... His presence at the front of the rim got us off to a good start.”
Sophomore Alan Griffin only tallied 10 minutes in the first half, but chipped in seven points, six rebounds, and two assists of his own. The Illini used a 16-3 run to take their first double-digit lead of the opening period, but couldn’t sustain it with six first-half turnovers. Illinois headed to the locker room with a 34-26 edge at the break.
The two teams opened the second half neck and neck. Northwestern (6-21, 1-16) even found some success getting the ball into the paint, and kept the contest within arm’s reach until roughly nine minutes to go. Commence Alan Griffin takeover.
“I’ve expected [Griffin’s breakout] for a while now,” Cockburn said. “I played against him back in high school. I knew what kind of player he is. I always try to tell him in practice, ‘Just be the kind of player that you know you are.’.. He never stops going. I’ve never seen anyone offensive rebound like him at his size.”
The Ossining, N.Y., native poured in 17 of his career-high 24 points in the second period, including 6-of-8 from deep and a sweet alley-oop from Da’Monte Williams. His dominating stretch pushed the Illini back up double digits, a lead that the Wildcats would cut to seven with just over two minutes remaining. A few Northwestern fouls and made free throws later, Illinois walked out of Welsh-Ryan with a 74-66 victory.
- Ayo Dosunmu — 21 points, 6-6 FTs, 6 rebounds, 5 assists
- Kofi Cockburn — 12 points, 6-8 FGs, 14 rebounds
- Alan Griffin — 24 points, 9-11 FGs, 6-8 3FGs, 7 rebounds
HE SAID IT
“It’s growth. It’s a process. There’s no substitute for building. You have to start with a foundation and build a hole. We had some hiccups and speed bumps. That locker room is incredible. The character in that locker room speaks volumes. You can grow when you’ve got great people. We’re still really young, but there’s still a tremendous amount of experience... Illinois Basketball, we’re getting it. We’re not where we need to be, but we’re climbing the mountain.” — Illinois head coach Brad Underwood on his team rebounding from last season.
“It makes you smile when you’re a part of it. That’s an unbelievable feeling, to know how proud our fans are of us. You walk around with your head held high. I’m damn proud to be a part of it.” — Underwood on the Illinois fan takeover of Welsh-Ryan Arena.
TWEET OF THE GAME
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Have a day, AG...
Alan Griffin 21 points 8-9 (5-6 from 3) pic.twitter.com/IxgLXiFykA— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) February 28, 2020
Da'Monte Williams▶️Alan Griffin pic.twitter.com/cY8er0XgB3— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) February 28, 2020
The Illini kick off the month of March with a home contest against Indiana (18-10, 8-9) this Sunday. Tip-off is set for 1 p.m. CT. If you have tickets, make sure to check what color to wear for Stripe State Farm Center!