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Hit hard by Kobe Bryant’s death, Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu keeps first-place team rolling

Dosunmu opened a 59-51 victory over Minnesota with a three from the right wing, pulling up off the dribble and burying it with about an inch separating his noggin from the outstretched hand of a defender. His idol would have approved.

Michigan v Illinois
Dosunmu and the Illini have won seven straight Big Ten games, the school’s longest streak in 15 seasons.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

CHAMPAIGN — Ayo Dosunmu opened Illinois’ 59-51 victory over Minnesota on Thursday with a three-pointer from the right wing. The sophomore from Morgan Park pulled up off the dribble and buried it with about an inch separating his noggin from the outstretched hand of defender Gabe Kalscheur.

Dosunmu’s idol, Kobe Bryant, would’ve approved.

“Every time I step on the court from now on, I’ll think about him,” said the player known throughout Illini Nation as simply Ayo. “I’ll think about Kobe. I’ll think about his daughter Gigi. I’ll think about his mentality.”

Dosunmu has been crushing it of late for the Big Ten’s hottest team, playing the best basketball of his life as the No. 19 Illini (16-5) have ripped off seven straight wins — their longest streak in league play since Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head lit the world on fire in 2004-05.

The 6-5 guard closed out Illini’s first win at Wisconsin in 10 seasons with a three-point game-winner. He closed the deal on Rutgers in a low-scoring nail-biter. He closed wins over Northwestern and — with a jumper with 0.5 seconds on the clock — Michigan, too.

It’s been a blast. At 8-2 in league play, the Illini are tied with Michigan State for first place.

Since the Sunday helicopter crash that killed Bryant, 41, daughter Gianna, 13, and seven others, though, Dosunmu has been just plain hurting.

“It’s affecting me a lot,” he said Wednesday before putting in some individual work at the team’s practice facility. “I just loved him as a player and as a person. The impact he had on lives — on me — it’s just, like, crazy.”

Dosunmu calls Michael Jordan the best of all time, but Bryant was his favorite. It’s the kind of distinction he’ll have to be able to make if he achieves his goal of becoming a television analyst after his playing days are over.

“I know when the ball stops bouncing, you still want to have a successful career,” he said. “That’s what Kobe Bryant said. I got that from him.”

Dosunmu met Bryant a few years back at the Nike Skills Academy near Los Angeles. He had the chance to pick Bryant’s brain for a bit, and what he took away was powerful — and is having an impact on the Illini’s breakout season.

“His mentality [was] just work harder than everyone,” Dosunmu said. “He was so locked-in and laser-focused on every little detail.”

Around these parts, Illini players have been desperately trying to keep up with Dosunmu’s work rate since the offseason. He has put in more gym time than anyone else since then. He has continued to do it especially over winter break. That’s when the countdown to this team’s launch really began.

The work is only beginning. Ayo is playing for his idol now. Mamba Mentality meets Ayo Mentality.

“The impact he had over players shows the type of person he was,” Dosunmu said. “When you have your own ‘mentality,’ it just shows who you are.

“People sometimes take people for granted when you’re alive. I feel like some people took Kobe for granted. Appreciate greatness, because you never know when it can go away.”

Just sayin’

There was a moment of silence before the Illinois-Minnesota game in honor of Robert Archibald, the former Illini center who died last week at the age of 39. He wasn’t a star, but he was a key contributor to a pair of Big Ten co-champions.

Appreciate him, too.

• Shouldn’t the Big Ten have named its freshman of the week award after Kofi Cockburn by now?

The Jamaican 7-footer — a double-double machine dubbed the “Big Ten’s Shaquille O’Neal” by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune — has received the honor seven times this season. That’s already tied for second-most ever with Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell (2014-15), Michigan’s Trey Burke (2011-12) and Indiana’s Noah Vonleh (2013-14) and Cody Zeller (2011-12).

Ohio State big man Jared Sullinger won it 12 times in 2010-11.

“Kofi’s a great player,” Dosunmu said. “He’s huge. He can jump really high.”

Such qualities tend not to hurt.

• In other news, Northwestern’s basketball season continues.

But enough about that.

• Have you gotten a load of all the changes to the NBA All-Star Game format?

To wit: Each of the first three quarters will be like a mini-game, beginning with a 0-0 score. The big winners will be the charities that benefit. And then the fourth quarter will be a nice tribute to Bryant, with a “target score” — it’s a bit complicated — involving Bryant’s jersey No. 24.

And you thought Bulls games at the United Center took some getting used to.

• If you’re anything like me, it has already occurred to you that the prop bets on the All-Star Game are going to be ridiculous.

Zach LaVine— snubbed!

I’m already over it, though. Frankly, I’ve seen enough of Bulls basketball at the UC to last me a while.