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Illinois overcomes sluggish showing against Northwestern in Cockburn’s return

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On to Wisconsin.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

After missing the last two games with a concussion, Kofi Cockburn made his return to the starting lineup on Saturday afternoon at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, and Illinois desperately needed him. His 22 points spearheaded the Illini to a 59-56 victory, and marked Illinois’ seventh straight win over the Wildcats.

Both defenses were locked in early. The Illini forced Northwestern into contested looks and two points through the game’s first 6+ minutes. They held the Wildcats to just 23% shooting from the field and 22% from deep through the first 20 minutes.

But, the Illini didn’t exactly come ready to play either. They connected on only 35% of their first-half field goal attempts, missed eight of 10 layups and committed seven turnovers. The fouls piled up early, relegating Alfonso Plummer to the bench for much of the first stanza and depriving Illinois of one of its best offensive sparks, yet the Illini still nursed a 24-19 lead at the break — Northwestern’s lowest scoring half of the year.

The Wildcats continued to hang around though, mostly because of Illinois’ self-inflicted miscues: missed bunnies, unforced turnovers, you name it. Northwestern’s Pete Nance went to the bench early in the second half with foul trouble, but that didn’t stop the Wildcats from taking its first lead, which they would retain most of the rest of the game, with a 13-2 run several minutes into the second half.

Bench sparks for the Illini came in the unlikely form of Brandin Podziemski and RJ Melendez, both of whom nailed some crucial shots down the stretch to keep Illinois in it. Their contributions were sorely needed because Illinois’ starting backcourt of Plummer, Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams combined for just 10 second-half points.

No basket was bigger than Williams’ putback slam which came with the game deadlocked at 53 and just over 90 seconds remaining though. That bucket helped the Illini reclaim its first lead in over 10 minutes and they never looked back. Three free throws from Plummer sealed the deal as Illinois escaped, 59-56.

STAT STUFFERS

  • Kofi Cockburn (ILL): 22 PTS, 9 REBS
  • Pete Nane (NU): 21 PTS, 5 REBS

TWEET OF THE GAME

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS

The Trent Frazier Effect™️. (JK, this was really just terrible basketball.)

WHO’S NEXT

Illinois gets a few days off before welcoming Wisconsin into town on Wednesday. The Badgers check in at 16-3, 7-2 in conference and present one of the major challengers for the Big Ten regular season crown.

Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network.