Before I begin, it bears repeating that I’m a born-and-bred Illinois Fighting Illini fan living about 30 minutes from Iowa City. I’m surrounded by tiger hawks, black & gold, and “In Heaven There Is No Beer” playing on a loop. My wife worked at the University of Iowa for the past four years. I was joking that I’d be Googling “divorce lawyers near me” at some point during the game. I may have been told to sleep in the guest room Friday night. Now then, let’s get back to the business at hand.
Like the previous two matchups between the Illini and Hawkeyes, Friday’s game had the look and feel of March Madness (without the 15,000 screaming fans, as coach Brad Underwood pointed out postgame) — two teams that have sights on playing for a national title slugging it out for 40 minutes. The game featured drama, intensity, and controversy. Eight ties. Twenty lead changes. Neither team leading by more than seven points. It was a damn fun game to watch, and it was damn fun to see Illinois on the right side of the 80-75 final score.
Ayo Dosunmu was playing at an intergalactic level in the first half, tallying 19 of Illinois’ 43 first-half points. We know how good Ayo is, but we were treated to vintage Trent Frazier, too. The senior guard poured in a season-high 24 points, and a little soothsaying may have helped his cause:
O’Neall the Oracle. I love it.
In addition to Trent having a fantastic night, Jacob Grandison put up his best game as an Illini. The Holy Cross transfer, in just his second start of the year, notched his first career double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
It’s performances like those from Frazier and Grandison that can really propel this team to that championship-caliber level we’re expecting. Ayo was quiet in the second half, and Kofi Cockburn had minimal impact offensively, so sometimes you need nights like this from your complementary players. Iowa’s biggest strength is that it has multiple guys who can beat you. Illinois exhibited its depth Friday night.
Defensively, National Player of the Year frontrunner Luka Garza was limited to only 19 points and 4 rebounds. Garza was in and out of the game due to foul trouble and wasn’t able to get into a rhythm. He’s a confident player and was obviously frustrated by the Illini. Giorgi Bezhanishvili spent most of his 13 minutes contesting Garza; you’d have to say it was time well spent. And for the second straight season, a late Kofi Cockburn block (no, it wasn’t goaltending) helped preserve an Illinois victory over the Hawkeyes.
Fighting Illini fans had been looking for a signature win — beating Duke on the road in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge was definitely impressive, but that victory has lost a bit of its luster due to the Blue Devils’ struggles this season. No one should fault Illinois for falling to No. 2 Baylor, and the Mizzou loss doesn’t look that bad in hindsight (ugh, it hurt me to write that). But the Illini needed a feather in their cap, a statement win to help make people believe. Friday night provided that.
Illinois played with energy and purpose, a sense of urgency we had witnessed in spurts but not for an entire game. It’s too soon to tell if this carries over to the remainder of the season, but now that the calendar is turning to February, it is imperative that we see much more of the Illini of Friday night.
No more letdowns. It’s time to put up or shut up.