KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Cincinnati coach Wes Miller had no idea who he was watching early on against Illinois on Monday night.
Not because he’s in his first year with the Bearcats, either.
“We weren’t playing our defensive principles. We weren’t alert. We weren’t executing offensively,” Miller said.
It took two media timeouts for the Bearcats to rediscover themselves. And when they did, they mounted a big first-half charge to take a stunning halftime lead, then steadily pulled away from the No. 14 Illini for a 71-51 victory that pushed them into the championship game of the Hall of Fame Classic.
“Sometimes you’re going to get your butt kicked, that’s part of college basketball,” Miller said. “I don’t like it but that’s part of it, and if we were going to get our butt kicked, let’s get it kicked our way. And I thought our guys really adjusted and we started to play the way we had the first four games of the year.”
Mike Saunders Jr. scored 20 points and Jeremiah Davenport added 19 to lead the Bearcats (5-0), who went 17 of 20 from the foul line and won the battle of the boards against the bigger Illini (2-2) inside T-Mobile Center.
That earned the right to play the winner of No. 13 Arkansas and Kansas State for the tournament title.
“This shows what we can do,” Davenport said. “As a whole group, we just have to go out every night and just execute what we can do at the highest level. You guys saw it tonight.”
Kofi Cockburn, who was suspended the first three games of the season for violating NCAA rules, had 18 points and seven rebounds for the Illini (2-2). Andre Curbelo added 12 points on 4-of-12 shooting with five turnovers.
“We got off to a good start but give Cincinnati a ton of credit. They played harder than we did, which is very unacceptable for me to stomach,” Illini coach Brad Underwood said. “They were the more physical team. And I give them a lot of credit.”
Indeed, the Illini looked as if they were going to blow out the Bearcats in the first 10 minutes.
Cockburn had a big part in it.
The 7-foot, 275-pound center from Jamaica bullied his way to six straight points to open the game, and the Illini raced to a 19-4 lead before the Bearcats seemed to realize the game had tipped off. At one point, Cockburn had outscored Cincinnati 12-8 as the Illini built a 23-8 advantage nearing the midpoint of the first half.
That’s when Miller made a couple of subtle adjustments that got them on track.
They slowed Cockburn with physical double-teams in the post, and they began jumping the passing lanes, and at one point the Bearcats held Illinois without a field goal for nearly seven minutes. They pieced together a 14-1 run of their own during the stretch, and David DeJulius made a couple foul shots just before halftime to give Cincinnati a 34-31 lead.
The Illini’s slump endured well into the second half.
Davenport drilled a 3-pointer right out of the locker room, and Illinois proceeded to miss 10 consecutive field-goal attempts at one point, as the hot-shooting Bearcats’ stunning run eventually reached 22-5 to start the second half.
It was about that point that Underwood tore the wrapper off a piece of gum.
Might have been an antacid.
The nation’s top-ranked defense through the first couple weeks of the season suddenly struggled to guard the Bearcats on the perimeter. And regardless of whether Cockburn wasn’t in the lineup, the Illini had trouble chasing down deep rebounds, which gave Cincinnati second and third chances on several trips down the floor.
That was enough to send the Bearcats to their first win over a ranked team since beating Tennessee on Dec. 18, 2019.
“We haven’t arrived, guys,” Miller said. “It was a good night, I’m excited, but we haven’t arrived or crossed the finish line.”
Illinois was two different teams the first 10 minutes and the final 30. Cockburn was aggressive going to the basket, and Curbelo and the rest of the Illini guards took care of the ball at the start. But once the middle bogged down, Illinois lost all semblance of offensive rhythm. It wound up 3 of 22 on 3s and shot 28% from the field overall.
Cincinnati still hasn’t played from behind in the second half this season. But the way the Bearcats handled the Illini was far more impressive than opening wins over Evansville, Georgia, Alabama A&M and Presbyterian. They turned the ball over a mere 11 times while preventing Illinois from scoring a single point in transition.