CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Pitted by the ACC and Big Ten to determine who is truly worthy of the “Fighting” moniker, the Illinois Fighting Illini emerged victorious against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Monday night in a slugfest that bled into a comfortable, unanimous decision for Illinois by the final bell.
Despite being down an injured Andre Curbelo, Austin Hutcherson, an ill Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, and availability questions stalking Trent Frazier and Jacob Grandison to warm-ups, the Illini played their most well-rounded game of the season to earn the Big Ten’s second win of the B1G/ACC Challenge in a 82-72 victory.
Though battling early and late, Illinois quickly pulled away early in the second half with a combination of haymaking three-pointers and Kofi Cockburn and eased Illini fans’ initial fears after Brad Underwood lamented his team’s availability — or lack thereof — prior to Monday night’s tip.
Cockburn and Alfonso Plummer once again led the Illini in scoring, yet Illinois looked more cohesive and balanced than they have all season. Frazier returned to action and pestered the Irish worse than a potato blight, taking charges and intercepting passes in true Trent Frazier form. Jacob Grandison also returned to his usual steadying presence, hitting threes when open and contributing across the board.
If one bright spot emerged from Illinois rash of injuries — and there may only be one — it’s significant minutes played by freshmen RJ Melendez and Luke Goode. Brad Underwood has thrust both members of the 2020 recruiting class into the rotation to positive results. Illinois fans got a glimpse of the future midway into the first half with Goode driving to the paint and passing off to Da’Monte Williams, who quickly kicked it to Melendez for three.
Cockburn continued his first team All-American play, the junior center looks like Godzilla on both ends of the paint. The number of opposing defenders thrown at him is inconsequential, the monster big man will get his. He further showed his expanding game against the Fighting Irish, making multiple passes from the paint when doubled and showing off a midrange jumper. Four games into the season, Illinois’ center has more than doubled his career assists per game.
Illinois took off in the second half, using a 7-0 run to open a 13-point lead with four minutes into the second half. Notre Dame closed the gap to 5 with six minutes to go in the game and kept it close until the final minutes. Illinois outlasted the Irish in the championship round, however, and pulled out a double-digit victory with contributions up and down the lineup.
- After setting a career high with 38 points on Friday, Cockburn notched 20-plus points for the third time this season. With two assists, he has also matched his assist total from his entire 31-game 2020-21 season.
- The Illini started Plummer, Melendez, Williams, Coleman Hawkins and Cockburn for their sixth different lineup pairing of the season through seven games.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Plummer’s hot streak continues, this time to beat the buzzer.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Kofi threw this down WITH AUTHORITY.
TWEET OF THE GAME
With nothing going on tonight, we probably don't need to remind you -- but the Irish men's hoops squad is currently tied at 12 with Illinois on ESPN 2 baybeeeee— One Foot Down (@OneFootDown) November 30, 2021
(He won’t win at LSU.)
The Illini stay at home and open up conference play on Friday as they host Rutgers for the annual Illinutgers matchup.
Tip off is set for 6 p.m CT on ESPN2.