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No. 3 Illinois advances to first Big Ten title game since 2008

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The Illini held off Luka and No. 5 Iowa in the semis.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Illinois vs Iowa Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in 14 years, the Illini will play on Selection Sunday.

With the 82-71 win over 3-seed Iowa in the Big Ten conference semifinals, the Illini move on to play the 5-seed Ohio State Buckeyes in Sunday’s Big Ten Championship at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

No. 3 Illinois (22-6) is seeking its first conference tournament title since 2005 and heads into the matchup as one of the hottest teams in the country. Winners of 13 of their last 14, the Illini should be a lock for a No. 1 seed when the NCAA Tournament bracket is announced tomorrow evening.

Two things were evident from the opening tip: a) the second semifinal matchup of the day was going to feature a lot more points than the first and b) the Illini came to play.

Illinois assisted on 13 of its 18 first-half made field goals, most of which came by way of Kofi Cockburn. The first team all-conference selection surpassed his season average in the first 20 minutes with 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting and four boards.

Turnovers are an area where the Illini typically struggle, but that wasn’t the case to start, only coughing it up twice in the first frame. On the flip side of that, Iowa is one of the most fundamentally sound squads in the country, averaging less than 10 turnovers a game. But the pesky Illini defense turned the Hawkeyes over 12 times for 19 points off turnovers.

The Hawkeyes stayed within striking distance mostly due to their hot outside shooting. Iowa connected of 6 of its first 13 three-point attempts with the Illini taking a 45-37 edge into the break.

Dosunmu capped off an 8-2 run to open the second period with a Jacob Grandison lob that essentially set the tone for the final 20 minutes. The Illini continued to pound the paint, outscoring the Hawkeyes 52-24 down low.

With both Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili sidelined midway through the second half because of foul trouble, head coach Brad Underwood turned redshirt freshman Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk to provide valuable frontcourt minutes. The Belgian native had only appeared in six games before Saturday’s matchup, but held his own on defense against player of the year candidate Luka Garza.

Who else would the Illini turn to to close out the game, but none other than Dosunmu. He’s spent his entire collegiate career icing close ones for Illinois, and that’s exactly what he did on Saturday. Masked Mamba went for a team-high 12 points in the second half as the Illini pulled away, 82-71, for their first conference tournament appearance in a decade and a half.

STAT STUFFERS

  • Kofi Cockburn: 26 points, 11-17 FG, 8 rebounds
  • Ayo Dosunmu: 18 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds
  • Andre Curbelo: 12 points, 7 rebounds
  • Luka Garza: 21 points, 12 rebounds
  • Jordan Bohannon: 20 points, 5-13 3FG

SOUND SMART

LOOK AT THIS

How does he do this?!?!

But, he can also do a little it of this too.

TWEET OF THE GAME

Pregame, but still.

WHO’S NEXT

One more conference game before the Big Dance™️ gets underway. The Illini will square off against 5-seed Ohio State on Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. CT.

The Illini wrapped up the regular season with a 73-68 win over the Buckeyes on March 6.