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No. 25 Illinois squeaks past pesky Nebraska

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The Cornhuskers legitimately gave the Illini all they could handle.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Nebraska Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

It took nearly two months for Illinois to get its names back in the AP poll — and it could have been on the verge of disappearing after 40 minutes in Lincoln, Nebraska.

After a six-week absence in the polls, No. 25 Illinois held off a pesky Nebraska (6-11, 0-6 BIG) team at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Tuesday, as the Illini pulled away late to win 81-71.

Illinois head coach Brad Underwood preached on Monday that winning on the road in the Big Ten is a challenge regardless of who you play. The Illini (12-3, 5-0 BIG) got all they could handle last season when they traveled to Nebraska, edging the Cornhuskers in overtime.

It was no easier this time around for the Illini. Nebraska — who had lost nine of its last 10 and first five in Big Ten play — came out firing out of the shoot, starting 5-of-6 from the floor and going on an early 13-2 run.

At that point, Kofi Cockburn and the Illini (12-3, 5-0 Big Ten) came alive. An 18-2 answer from Illinois spanned seven minutes, including eight Cockburn points that helped the Illini get their first lead of the game.

But just like the start of the game, Nebraska roared back to end the half up 34-31, and it was a battle from there forward.

Trent Frazier was a nice lift for the Illini offensively, as he poured in 29 points and added four steals on the defensive end. Most of Frazier’s prowess showed in the second-half, scoring 20 in the game’s second period.

But in the second half it wasn’t Cockburn’s eighth consecutive double-double that helped the Illini pull away, Cockburn’s fourth foul put him on the bench with under four minutes to play.

After Nebraska (6-11, 0-6 Big Ten) tied the game 65-65, the Illini answered with a 7-0 run with points from Omar Payne, Coleman Hawkins and Da’Monte Williams.

“When I think back on this game, I’m gonna think about Coleman Hawkins,” Underwood said. “And then maybe the coming out party for Omar Payne. Couldn’t be happier for the young man with the way he’s stayed with it.”

In his best game of the season, Payne gave the Illini seven points, five rebounds and four blocks off the bench. While it will be Cockburn’s numbers that jump off the page, it was Payne’s crucial play in the game’s closing minutes that finished the Illini victory.

“I literally kept the best player in the country on the bench the last four minutes,” Underwood said. “[Payne] was that good.”

STAT STUFFERS

Kofi Cockburn (ILL): 16 points, 13 rebounds

Trent Frazier (ILL): 27 points, 5 assists, 4 steals

Bryce McGowens (NEB): 19 points, 6 rebounds

Alonzo Verge Jr (NEB): 14 points, 9 assists

SOUND SMART

  • The Illini have not lost a Big Ten game since Feb. 23, 2021.
  • This is the Illini’s first 5-0 conference start since 2004-05.

THE KING’S REIGN CONTINUES

After winning Big Ten Player of the Week for the second time this season, Cockburn followed that up with another great game.

Cockburn finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds Tuesday night, good for his tenth double-double of the season and his eighth in a row. Cockburn now has 38 double-doubles in his career, three away from the program’s all-time record of 41.

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS

This kid gets it.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

This was... weird?

Andre Curbelo hasn’t played in a while, and maybe he’s getting antsy to get back out there, but not sure what he was looking to argue about.

Per @IlliniBoard on Twitter, it looks like Belo was upset that the Nebraska player put his hand up in a motion to ‘block’ Frazier’s free throw.

TWEET OF THE GAME

UP NEXT

Illinois has a quick turnaround and returns home to face Michigan on Friday night. The Wolverines have postponed their last two games due to COVID-19 issues.

Right now, tipoff is set for 8 p.m. The game will be broadcast on FS1.