One week, the Big Ten’s two worst teams, and Ayo Dosunmu taking over for two wins.
Four days removed from going to overtime with the conference’s last-place team in Nebraska, the No. 5 Illini picked up right where they left off against Northwestern, eventually escaping the Wildcats behind Dosunmu’s late-game heroics, 73-66, on Tuesday night in Champaign.
“This grind, this is chiseling us,” said head coach Brad Underwood post game. “This is making us find out how to win in different ways.”
Although the game didn’t begin looking like it would need it’s closer, in the game’s final minutes it was number 11 striking again. After letting the Wildcats hang for a large portion of the second half, Dosunmu sunk a late game three from practically Evanston to clinch the victory.
Illinois (15-5, 11-3 BIG) trailed by 15 at halftime of its Jan. 7 meeting with Northwestern in Evanston. After halftime, the Illini clicked and went on a 53-13 half-long run — and that run continued at the State Farm Center.
And from the jump Tuesday it was all Illinois — on both sides of the floor — with the love spread all over the court. The Illini had nine players enter the game, and all nine of them netted points in the contest’s first half.
Despite turning it over 10 times in the first period, the Illini took a 38-24 lead into the break — led by 10 points from Giorgi Bezhanishvili and five assists from Dosunmu.
The game’s outcome was never truly in doubt, although the second half was much more competitive. The Wildcats (6-13, 4-11 BIG) cut the Illini lead to four multiple times in the second half, and got it down to one with under five minutes to play.
The Illini used Kofi Cockburn’s size to help pull away. The sophomore had a strong second half, and finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds — his 15th double-double of the year.
“We’re trying to get it in there (to Cockburn) every chance we can,” Underwood said. “You’ve got a guy that’s shooting close to 80% it seems like, you want to get him as many opportunities as you can.”
Once again, it was Dosunmu who closed out the Wildcats with eight of his 13 points down the stretch — including an icy deep three with under a minute to play.
“You saw when it was time to win the game,” said Dosunmu. “That’s when my closing mentality and those closing instincts kicked in.”
The junior is making a surge for both Big Ten and National Player of the Year, and his 35th straight game in double figures certainly helps his cause.
“There’s no doubt Ayo is a National Player of the Year candidate,” his head coach said. “In my opinion, he should be leading in that area.”
- Giorgi Bezhanishvili’s 10 points are the most he’s scored since he put up 11 against Rutgers on Dec. 20. He scored in double-digits for just the fourth time this season.
- The Illini are now on a five-game winning streak against Northwestern.
- The Illini had four scorers in double figures.
- Northwestern’s Chase Audige scored a game high 22 points — his third 20-point game of the season.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Scott Van Pelt had some high praise for Ayo to lead SportsCenter tonight.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
The ball movement on this play is impeccable.
And you can watch this again, because why not.
For your looped viewing pleasure pic.twitter.com/yOjeVxT9NR— Gavin Good (@itsallG_O_O_D) February 17, 2021
TWEET OF THE GAME
This is an Illinois team that could get a 1 seed and go to the final four if and only if they survived triple overtime against the 16— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) February 17, 2021
hey @BretBielema here’s the benchmark: start out with a 21-7 lead on northwestern— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) February 17, 2021
HE SAID IT
“Let’s talk about that in March or April, because it could change,” — Brad Underwood on his favorite closing shot from Ayo Dosunmu
Illinois goes for its fourth sweep (Indiana, Penn State, Northwestern) of the season Saturday afternoon at Minnesota. Tipoff is set for 2:30 p.m. on Fox.