CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Justice for last year? A poetic ending for the seniors? Whatever you want to say, the Illini are Big Ten Champs.
Thanks to Nebraska’s upset win over No. 10 Wisconsin, Illinois entered Sunday night with a chance to clinch a share of the Big Ten regular season title. A year after Illinois felt they were snubbed in the conference standings, the basketball gods gave Illinois a golden opportunity: win and be Big Ten co-champions.
“Never said a word [to the guys about Nebraska winning]. They knew,” said Illini head coach Brad Underwood. “It was more about dealing with the emotions of Senior Night.”
And in what may have been the biggest regular season game in the Underwood era, No. 20 Illinois outlasted No. 24 Iowa, 74-72, at State Farm Center. Confetti fell from the rafters, fans stormed the court and the Illini cut down the nets as Big Ten regular season champs.
For both teams, their Big Ten Player of the Year candidate carried. Kofi Cockburn was the Illini’s best weapon. Iowa had no answer for the big man, who tallied 13 points and nine rebounds in the first half alone. He finished with 21 and 14.
“Kofi is the most dominant player in college basketball when he plays with the energy he played with it today,” Underwood said.
Illinois (22-8, 15-5 Big Ten) struggled to defend Iowa’s Keegan Murray, who won the Big Ten scoring title. Murray tallied a double-double, with 22 points and 11 rebounds for the Hawkeyes.
Murray went to the line with 15.6 seconds left with a chance to take the lead. Free throws plagued Iowa though, and the 72% free throw shooter missed the first two. Iowa was 10-of-22 from the charity stripe.
Iowa (22-9, 12-8 Big Ten) went on an 13-0 run in the middle of the first half, and the Illini struggled to respond. Thanks to some tough finishes from Alfonso Pummer and Trent Frazier, Illinois was able to cut the deficit to just six at half.
“The end of the first half was the biggest stretch,” Underwood said.
Illinois opened the second half with much more energy, and a 10-3 run gave the Illini a 47-46 lead. Iowa was able to answer with an 11-2 run, and the Hawkeyes continued to give Illinois all it could handle, mostly in transition.
While Cockburn was still great, the Illini got a big boost off the bench from Andre Curbelo in the second half. A collection of layups you would see on NBA 2K22 and some big assists powered Illinois.
Curbelo turned in one of his best outings of the year, with 14 points, a season-high six assists and four rebounds.
Speaking of boosts, in the absence of Jacob Grandison due to a shoulder injury, Coleman Hawkins heard his named called in the starting lineup. His response? Nine points and 11 rebounds while defending the Big Ten’s best scorer.
“Coleman has a chance to be on of the elite defenders in the country,” Underwood said. “Yeah, [Murray] scored 22, but he took 22 shots. I feel pretty happy with that.”
A late push from Illinois, aided by a raucous Orange Krush, made for a poetic ending for Frazier, Plummer, Da’Monte Williams, Grandison and Cockburn.
“Trent and Da’Monte are going out as winners man,” Cockburn said. “They should be remembered that way.”
- Kofi Cockburn (ILL): 21 PTS, 9-17 FG, 14 REB
- Alfonso Plummer (ILL): 15 PTS
- Andre Curbelo (ILL): 14 PTS, 6 AST, 4 REB
- Keegan Murray (IOWA): 22 PTS, 7-22 FG, 11 REB
- Tony Perkins (IOWA): 17 PTS, 12 REB, 5 AST
SOUND SMART (FOR MAYBE THESE GUYS’ LAST HOME GAME)
- Trent Frazier stands as the Illini’s program leader in minutes played and ranks second all-time in three pointers made. Frazier has played over 4,700 minutes in orange and blue over the course of 154 games. Frazier also ranks in the top-5 in program history of points, steals and starts.
- Da’Monte Williams is the only player in Illini history with more career appearances than Frazier in an Illini uniform. Sunday marks Williams’ 156th game in Orange and Blue, more than any other player has played in the history of Illinois.
- Jacob Grandison has been behind Alfonso Plummer and Trent Frazier’s sharp shooting shadow this season, but Brad Underwood has not hesitated to call him an elite shooter. Grandison stands in the Big Ten’s top ten three point shooters by percentage, and ranks No. 3 all time in 3FG % in program history.
- Alfonso Plummer entered Sunday’s game leading the Big Ten with 89 made threes this season. That number already ranks fourth all-time in Illinois history in a season. With potentially as many as 10 games left, Plummer is chasing Luther Head (116), Dee Brown (99), Cory Bradford (96). With 15 points, Plummer also reached over 1,000 in his collegiate career, spanning Arizona Western College, Utah and Illinois.
- Kofi Cockburn has been a record-setter in his three years in Champaign. The big man leads the program in all-time double-doubles and has accumulated 1,466 points and 816 rebounds. If Cockburn were to return next season, he would be on pace to break the program’s all-time record for both points and rebounds (2,100 points, Deon Thomas, 1,023 rebounds, James Augustine).
- Illinois has won eight in a row against Northwestern, five in a row against Michigan and Iowa, four in a row against Wisconsin, Penn State, Nebraska, Minnesota and Indiana. Dominant.
- Illinois has tallied 20+ wins in each of the last three seasons for the first time since 2009-11.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
El Mago, if you will.
It didn’t count, but it sure did look cool.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Five Illini players were honored in Sunday’s Senior Night ceremonies.
TWEET OF THE GAME
Almost cried for Da’Monte but I knew he wouldn’t want me to— Matty (@matt1all) March 7, 2022
HE SAID IT
- “Gosh that’s so pretty. Might kick my wife out of bed tonight and sleep with that thing.” — Underwood when the trophy came into the press room
- “If they didn’t enjoy that they can go somewhere else and we’re going to kick their ass.” — Underwood on recruits at the game
The Big Ten Tournament will begin for Illinois on Friday. More on that this week here on TCR.