This is not the week the Illini envisioned.
Instead of traveling to No. 3 Michigan for a chance at first place in the Big Ten, the No. 6 Illini scheduled a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, on Friday to battle the Cornhuskers at Pinnacle Bank Arena. In a game that was much closer than expected, Ayo Dosunmu and Illinois hung on to beat Nebraska 77-72 in overtime.
It wasn’t the type of game the Illini wanted, trailing the Big Ten’s bottom feeders 9-0 by Friday’s first media timeout, and trailing by as many as six late in the second half. Illinois looked a bit out of sync defensively for most of the opening period, but once the threes started falling — the Illini were right back in it.
“Winners win and losers lose...and we found a way to win,” said Illini head coach Brad Underwood post game. “That’s what winners do.”
Ayo Dosunmu was able to spark the Illini with a made three and a steal converted with a dunk, but the game really swung in the Illini’s favor once Kofi Cockburn got involved.
The Illini sophomore tallied 11 points and five rebounds in the first half alone — continuing his wrath of slamming on whoever is in front of him along the way. Cockburn finished with 21 points, 13 boards and four blocks.
“He’s doing this as a freshman and sophomore,” Underwood said. “He imposes his will and his strength and his girth on people, and that wears you out over time. Pretty impressive.”
Turnovers were prevalent from both teams in the first half, with the Illini turning it over nine times and the Cornhuskers eight. A late 9-2 run to close the first half narrowed the Illini’s deficit to just one at the break.
The second half featured a bit of back and forth between the nation’s sixth ranked team and the Big Ten’s last place team — and Nebraska went on a 12-2 run midway through to build a six point advantage over the Illini.
“We escaped in a very ugly fashion,” Underwood said. “Give Nebraska a ton of credit.”
Nebraska wouldn’t go away — with three players in double figures —so the Illini turned to their preseason All-American to take over and close, as usual.
“It was his time,” Underwood said.
Dosunmu was doing it all offensively in the second period, scoring 15 of his 31 points and pouring in three of his six assists. But it was his block in the game’s closing seconds that sent the game to overtime.
The National Player of the Year candidate added an additional seven points — scoring 17 of the Illini’s final 21 — in the overtime period, leading the Illini to their fifth straight conference win.
“I’m just glad that No. 11 was on our team tonight,” Underwood said.
COCKBURN STAYS HOT
Ever since getting dunked on by Trace Jackson-Davis in the Illini’s game against Indiana last Tuesday, Kofi Cockburn has been on a tear. The sophomore finished with a double-double in the overtime win against the Hoosiers, and followed that up with a 23-point, 14-rebound effort against Wisconsin on Saturday — which included eight dunks.
After his explosion against the Badgers, Cockburn said “Trayce (Jackson-Davis) dunked on me, and now everybody has to feel me.”
The big man stayed hot in Lincoln, with his 14th double-double of the season — leading all Power Five players and second in the NCAA to Austin Peay’s Terry Taylor.
Just to better explain Cockburn’s dominance, here are some other stats:
- He leads the Big Ten in rebounding, averaging more than 10 rebounds per game.
- He averages a double-double per game, with 17.2 points and 10.4 rebounds entering Friday’s contest.
- Cockburn hasn't had fewer than 10 rebounds since Dec. 23 against Penn State, and has finished with fewer than 10 boards just four times all season.
- Cockburn has over 80 dunks in his career, an Illini record — and his 40+ this season is near the tops in the NCAA.
- The Illini lead the Big Ten in rebound margin per game, averaging over 10 more rebounds than their opponents all year.
- Illinois leads the Big Ten in three point shooting, making 7-of-21 from deep on Friday.
- The Illini are now 2-6 all-time in Pinnacle Bank Arena.
- Nebraska has lost 25 straight Big Ten games dating back to last season.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
We’ve been seeing a lot of this lately. Ayo -> Kofi
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Don’t forget that Ayo has bunnies too!
TWEET OF THE GAME
boy if I were a Michigan fan I’d be awfully concerned about how the men’s basketball team is the only Michigan sports team incapable of being prepared to play this week, that’s a big red flag right there— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) February 13, 2021
HE SAID IT
“I don’t know what the last chapter will look like but the middle chapters are damn hellacious,” — Brad Underwood on Ayo Dosunmu
The Illini travel back home to rematch their in-state rival Northwestern on Tuesday at 8 p.m.
Illinois will look to make it six in a row, against a team they beat in Evanston last month, 81-56.