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Dominant second half fuels No. 12 Illinois to win in Evanston

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Make that 1-0 in the Orange throwbacks this year.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern had a 15-point lead at halftime. As a team, the Wildcats had only 13 points in the second half.

Despite trailing by as many as 16 points in the first half, Illinois dominated Northwestern in the final 20 minutes on Thursday night in Evanston. In the process, the Illini grabbed their fifth straight win over Northwestern, 81-56.

“There’s no quit in us,” said head coach Brad Underwood postgame.

In the first half Kofi Cockburn put up a pedestrian five points and he picked up just two rebounds. In the second half — much like the rest of the team — the beast was awakened.

Cockburn picked up a double-double in the second half alone, scoring 13 points and grabbing 10 rebounds — he finished with a game-high 18 and 12. Whether it was slapping the floor on the defensive side of the ball, or slamming it with authority, Cockburn provided some much-needed energy for Illinois.

The Illini ended up dominating the entire second half, outscoring Northwestern 53-13 over the final 20 minutes.

“I’ve never been a part of anything like that,” said Cockburn of the dominant second half. “You saw it. You saw how we reacted to it. I was in awe, man, just being on the floor watching that happen and being a part of it. It was a really good feeling.”

Speaking of efficient second halves, Ayo Dosunmu put up 11 points and picked up five assists in the game’s final 20 minutes. Dosunmu finished with a 15-5-6 stat line to pad his National Player of the Year candidacy.

Slow starts had plagued Illinois (9-3, 5-1 Big Ten) over the last couple of games, and that trend continued on Thursday, potentially even worse. Offensively, Illinois struggled against Northwestern’s 3-2 zone defense.

A 12-0 Wildcats run late in the first half allowed Northwestern (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) to take a 15-point lead into the break.

“At halftime I didn’t say a lot,” Underwood said. “I was more disappointed in the way we chose to perform.”

At the under-four minute time out in the first half Underwood said to his team, “They’re playing harder,” so loud that it was detectable to the media allowed in Ryan Fieldhouse. From that point forward, all Illinois did was prove Underwood correct as the first half closed.

But whatever Underwood — or whoever — really did say behind closed doors at halftime worked.

The Illini opened the second half looking like they deserved their No. 12 ranking. Illinois went on a 8-0 run over just the first 90 seconds alone.

A huge spark came from Jacob Grandison — one game removed from not playing a single minute — as he knocked down a three to narrow Northwestern’s lead to one, as well as getting an offensive rebound and assisting on a three-pointer.

Trent Frazier was among those who helped to power the surge, scoring nine of his 14 points in the second half.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything quite like that game,” Underwood said.

For Illinois, the win makes it four in a row in conference play, keeping them in second place in the Big Ten behind undefeated Michigan.

FREE? THROWS

Despite being ranked in the top 15 in the country, Illinois entered Thursday’s contest against Northwestern as the No. 219 team in free throw percentage in the entire NCAA.

One game removed from shooting 9-of-22 from the free throw line, the Illini might have helped their poor ranking. The Illini finished 16-of-21 from the free throw line in Evanston.

According to NCAA.com, the combined free throw percentage of the past 34 national champions combined is 71.9%.

TURNOVER TOGGLE

In the first half it was Illinois who couldn't take care of the basketball. The Illini turned it over 11 times in the first half, compared to just four for the Wildcats.

It was a different story in the second half, with the Wildcats struggling to maintain possession. The Wildcats coughed it up nine times, where as Illinois turned it over just four times.

STAT STUFFERS

  • Kofi Cockburn picked up his eighth double-double of the season — tied for the NCAA lead.
  • Andre Curbelo had a game-high 7 assists.
  • Robbie Baren (NW) led the Wildcats with 11 points, five rebounds and four assists.

SOUND SMART

  • Illinois scored more in the first 12 minutes of the second half than they did the entire first half (28).
  • The Illini have gone on runs of at least 10 unanswered points in three straight games.
  • Cockburn’s 13 second-half points were as much as Northwestern scored in the second half as a team.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

This basket from the Illini’s player of the year candidate capped off an 8-0 run to open the second half.

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS

Ummmmm..... what?

TWEET OF THE GAME

Brad Underwood was HEATED in the first half.

UP NEXT

No. 12 Illinois gets just two days off before suiting back up again on Sunday at home against Maryland. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. on Big Ten Network.