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Illinois opens conference play with commanding win over Rutgers

Illinutgers favored the Illini on Friday night.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — If the Illini want to be one of the best teams in the Big Ten, they need to play like they did on Friday.

After falling out of the top-25, Illinois has responded with its two best games of the season. The latest? An 86-51 drubbing of Rutgers to open up Big Ten play Friday Night at State Farm Center.

It was a sloppy start for the Illini (6-2, 1-0 Big Ten) offensively, but the smooth shooting stroke of sharp-shooter Alfonso Plummer turned that around. The Utah transfer connected on a pair of long two-pointers, had a strong take to the rim and nailed a three in the first 10 minutes of the game.

“It’s legit,” said sophomore Coleman Hawkins. “That’s [Alfonso Plummer], everyday.”

The other hot hand during the Illini’s current four-game winning streak has been Kofi Cockburn.

When Cockburn returned from his three-game suspension, head coach Brad Underwood made it very clear the Illini’s game plan was going to involve riding him. But it took Illinois a while to get the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year going on Friday night.

He didn’t score his first points until there was 9:21 left in the first half, but he made his presence felt in other ways.

The big man passed out of the paint multiple times to open shooters which sparked the offense to go on a 19-4 run.

“It’s pick your poison,” said Jacob Grandison. “[Kofi Cockburn is] a menace in the paint, and we have some menaces on the three-point line.”

The Illini were able to pull away from Rutgers (4-4, 0-1 Big Ten) in the first half thanks to a plethora of threats from deep. Plummer, Grandison, Da’Monte Williams, Luke Goode and Coleman Hawkins each had at least one triple in the first period, and the Illini took a 43-23 lead into the break.

The second half looked a lot like the first, with Illinois shooting at an elite rate. Rutgers was never truly in the game during the second half, and the Illini defense held the Knights to 31% shooting on the day.

Hot Streak Continues

Plummer has now notched at least 20 points in each of the Illini’s wins during their current four-game streak. Over that stretch, he’s knocked down nearly 20 three-pointers, giving him 24 on the season. That puts Plummer on pace to hit 93 three0-pointers in the regular season, which would place fourth all-time for a single season in program history.

That wouldn’t even include Big Ten or NCAA Tournament play. Impressive.

The King’s Dominant Reign

Kofi Cockburn also continues to wow so far this season. His 13 points against Rutgers on Friday night make it now 20 consecutive games in double-figures for the big man. Not only did Cockburn pick up his third double-double of the season, he also tied a career-high with two assists.

Cockburn had just five assists a season ago, and in five games this year he has already eclipsed that number. Adding a passing aspect to the game of someone who already was a second team All-American is a scary sight for opposing defenses.

STAT STUFFERS

  • Plummer (ILL): 24 points
  • Cockburn (ILL): 13 points, 15 rebounds
  • Grandison (ILL): 16 points, 4 rebounds

SOUND SMART

  • The Illini had over six players knock down a three for the second straight game.
  • Illinois has beat Rutgers two times in a row (last: 2021 Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal).
  • Illinois is 2-0 as an unranked team in the 2021-22 season.
  • Andre Curbelo missed another game with his undisclosed injury.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

You might have missed it, but Alfonso Plummer definitely didn’t.

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS

This is how it should be in Big Ten play.

TWEET OF THE GAME

We made two dad jokes on our Twitter tonight.

The first:

The second:

HE SAID IT

“We wanted to make a statement. Show the Big Ten, we’re back. We’re Big Ten Champs, we’re back.” — Coleman Hawkins on the Big Ten opener

UP NEXT

The Illini continue conference play with their first Big Ten road game Monday night against Iowa.

Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. on FS1.