No matter what happens from here, Illinois’ 78-76 win against Iowa was one to relish
Nobody knows what might happen from here. The college basketball postseason is as cruel as it is enjoyable. One bad night, one missed shot — or one shining moment by the other team — and the season ends in a painful, unblinking instant.
CHAMPAIGN — Don’t forget to savor it.
If there was a piece of advice worth hearing Sunday night for everyone with orange in their blood, it was that.
Savor Illinois’ regular-season-ending 78-76 victory against Iowa not merely because basketball is alive and well in this neck of the woods, although it certainly is that. The Illini (21-10) are good again. Games at State Farm Center are mighty big deals again. But now there won’t be another one for nearly eight months, and who wants to think about that at a time like this?
“There’s nothing like playing in this building,” said Kipper Nichols, who dug deep for 10 points — his first double-figure scoring game of the season — on Senior Night.
The Farm was a wasteland during coach Brad Underwood’s first two seasons at the school, but it roared to life as the Illini put themselves back on the map with a 13-7 record in the Big Ten, their first winning record in the conference since 2010 and their most victories in league play since 2005.
Underwood might still be only 47-49 at the school, but one would never have known it as he circled the lower sections of the stands and celebrated with adoring fans. That three-year contract extension he signed last week that should keep him here through at least 2026? Illini Nation couldn’t be more delighted about it.
That’s what a top-four finish in the Big Ten does. It was going to be Illinois or Iowa in the No. 4 seed — with a double-bye — in the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis. It’ll be the Illini who don’t open until Friday, likely with a rematch against the Hawkeyes.
That’s what coaching a team hard from Day 1 of the offseason to the NCAA Tournament — to which the Illini are headed for the first time since 2013 — does.
“We’ve come a long way in terms of the growth of this program,” Underwood said. “I’m proud of us.”
Savor a game like Sunday’s because a game this good comes around rarely. It had it all.
There was an electric start by the Hawkeyes, who scored 20 points in the first 5½ minutes and soon after had a double-figure lead.
There was a matchup of big men Luka Garza and Kofi Cockburn that, alone, was worth coming for. Iowa’s Garza, a junior who scored 28 points, has developed into the best player in the conference and a first-team All-American. Illinois’ Cockburn, a 7-foot, 290-pound freshman, threw down alley-oops early, blocked Garza’s potential game-tying shot to end the game and, on the whole, held his own.
Cockburn has oak trees for legs, battering rams for arms and the world at his fingertips. He told his teammates before the game he’d handle his business, and that he did.
“It was just about matching [Garza’s] energy, making sure he didn’t get the best of me,” Cockburn said.
Rivalry blood boiled when Illinois’ Da’Monte Williams and Iowa’s Connor McCaffery literally went nose-to-nose at center court, away from the action. Each was dragged away from the other.
“It’s just that we don’t like each other,” Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu said. “We just don’t. We don’t like each other. They want to kill us; we want to kill them. It’s sweet and simple as that.”
Garza was the best in the Big Ten this season, but Dosunmu, a sophomore, was the best player in the building in what might have been his last home game before he leaves for the NBA. Better savor the presence of the former Morgan Park star, too. Dosunmu finished with 17 points, seven rebounds and eight assists on a night when the Illini shared the ball as well as they have all season.
One other reason a night like this must be savored: Nobody knows what might happen from here. The college basketball postseason is as cruel as it is enjoyable. One bad night, one missed shot — or one shining moment by the other team — and the season ends in a painful, unblinking instant. The dream dies. Goals dissolve into tearful goodbyes.
Illinois is back. And it’s the games like this one that truly matter the most.
“This is what Illinois basketball is to me,” Underwood said.
To him, and to everyone with orange in their blood.