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No. 3 Illinois wins 2021 Big Ten Tournament

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The Illini staved off the Buckeyes for their first title in 16 years.

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

The business is starting to get finished.

For the first time in 16 years, the Illini have won the Big Ten tournament. The clincher? A classic: a 91-88 victory over No. 9 Ohio State in overtime to claim just the third conference tournament title in program history.

And, boy, was it a hard-fought game, that needed overtime to settle. To no surprise, the game was iced by a pair of Ayo Dosunmu free throws in OT.

Illinois’ stingy defense was as good as ever to open the game, holding the No. 5 seed Ohio State to without a basket (0-for-9 FG) until nearly seven minutes had gone by in the opening frame.

Offensively, the Andre Curbelo to Kofi Cockburn connection was alive and well. Curbelo, as has been the case for most of the tournament, brought the spark to Lucas Oil Stadium. The freshman has picked up nine assists throughout the tournament, most of which to Cockburn.

Curbelo’s vision led to assists on two of Cockburn's first four baskets, both rim-rattling jams. Cockburn scored nine of the Illini’s first 16, and finished with 16. Curbelo also ended the game with a tied for team-high 16 points.

Both put together a good case for Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, as did Dosunmu who sniffed or had a double-double in all three games. This time around the National Player of the Year candidate also put up 16 points, nine rebounds and four assists.

In Saturday’s game against Iowa, Illinois made only three three-pointers in the entire game — one of its fewest outputs of the year. Midway through the first half, the Illini knocked down three unanswered triples for a 9-0 run, matching their three-point shooting total from the Iowa game in a span of minutes.

At one point in the first half, Illinois held a 27-10 lead. By halftime, the Illini held just a five-point lead over the Buckeyes 40-35.

For Illinois, one of the keys to beating the Buckeyes was handling E.J. Liddell, an All-Big Ten First-Teamer who scored 45 points in his first two games against the Illini the year. This time around, Liddell had just five first-half points, he finished with just 12 points on 3-of-16 shooting.

Early in the second half, Cockburn picked up his third foul causing him to exit the game, but Giorgi Bezhanishfili filled the void with some of his best minutes of the year. The junior big added 12 points off-the-bench in the second half to the pleasure of Cockburn who jumped up and down on the sideline rooting for him.

Pretty soon both of the Illini bigs had four fouls, and after leading for a near 35 minutes, Ohio State reclaimed the lead with just over five minutes to play. The two top-ten teams battled down the stretch, and needed overtime.

In OT, the teams continued to trade blows. A clutch pair of free throws made by Cockburn and a Curbelo jumper gave the Illini a three-point lade with 47 seconds left.

After getting slighted for the Big Ten regular season title — despite leading the conference in wins with 16 (an Illinois record) — the Illini entered the Big Ten Tournament looking to prove they were the best team in the conference. Consider it done. The Illini head into the tournament as winners of 14 of their last 15 games, outscoring their opponents in the Big Ten Tourney (Rutgers, Iowa and Ohio State) by 36 over the weekend.

STAT STUFFERS

  • Andre Curbelo is the only player in the NCAA to have 100 or more assists and 20 or more steals this season off the bench. The freshman had four assists and three steals in the tourney’s first two games, and he added five assists on Sunday.
  • Kofi Cockburn’s 65.8% field goal percentage is the single-season record in Illinois history.
  • Giorgi Bezhanishvili came into Sunday’s game averaging 5.1 points per game and under three rebounds per game. The junior showed out with 10 second-half points, and secured __ rebounds to aid Illinois. It was just his fifth game in double-digits this season.
  • Duane Washington (Ohio State) has hit a three-pointer in every game this season, he led the Buckeyes with 32 points on Sunday.

SOUND SMART

  • This was the Illini’s third overtime game of the year, having previously beat Nebraska and Indiana in an extra period. It was also the second Big Ten Tournament final to go to overtime (2015, Wisconsin over Michigan State).
  • The Illini had six players in double figures (Curbelo, Cockburn, Dosunmu, Bezhanishvili, Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams).

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Alma was ready to roll for the Big Ten Championship.

TWEET OF THE GAME

UP NEXT

The Illini await the result of the Selection Committee to find our their next opponent.

Illinois will certainly be a No. 1 seed in the tournament, and will take on a No. 16 seed next Friday or Saturday.