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Freshmen spark run, but Illinois falls short of Sweet 16 again

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The Illini’s season will once again end during the tournament’s opening weekend.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round-Houston vs Illinois Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Luke Goode and RJ Melendez were 2 years old the last time Illinois made it to the Sweet 16.

They won’t be 19 when the Illini make their next.

On the backs of the freshmen and All-American Kofi Cockburn, the Illini nearly roared back to another ugly NCAA Tournament win to advance to the second weekend for the first time since 2005, but a late run by Houston was enough to propel the Cougars to a 68-53 victory at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon.

After a lethargic first 15 minutes of just 11 points, the freshman duo sparked a late run to give the Illini a fighting chance in the second half. Melendez and Goode combined for 11 first-half points off the bench (on a perfect 4-for-4 combined shooting). Neither rookie appeared in Illinois’ 54-53 come-from-behind win over Chattanooga in the Round of 64 on Friday.

But until the pair got going, Illinois’ offense wasn’t doing itself any favors. Six first-half three-point attempts came off the hands of Coleman Hawkins and Andre Curbelo — neither of who shoots better than 29% from behind the arc. Hawkins made one, Curbelo made none, and despite playing big roles against the Mocs, the two sophomores didn’t get much tick after the break.

Worse than all of that, until the freshmen got on the court, if your name wasn’t Kofi Cockburn, you were a non-factor on offense in the first half. Trent Frazier, battling an eye infection, made his first bucket of the tournament and a buzzer-beater before the break, while sniper Alfonso Plummer missed his first six shot attempts.

Shooting wasn’t the only issue for Brad Underwood’s team. Illinois seemingly couldn’t successfully inbound a pass to get the offense running, and the Cougars — one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation — dominated the boards, even with big man Josh Carlton in foul trouble much of the second half. Illinois finished with 16 turnovers (7 on inbounds passes) and was out-rebounded 39-33.

TWEET OF THE GAME

Tom makes a good point.

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS

BS technical call, but it didn’t end up meaning much. Houston went up a pretty lengthy run to close the game after it, however.

Vintage Trent. Thank you for the last five years.

SOUND SMART

  • Illinois still hasn’t made the Sweet 16 since its run to the national championship game in 2005.
  • Kofi may have ended his Illinois career with his 43rd consecutive game with at least 10 points. He finished with 17 points and 8 rebounds.

UP NEXT

That’s it.

We’ll see a very different team on the court next season, with the departures of super seniors Frazier, Da’Monte Williams and Plummer (and likely Cockburn to the NBA). Anywho, we’ll have more on that over the next seven months.

See you next year. And ILL.