Illinois 59, Northwestern 56: Kofi Cockburn carries Illini, deepens Wildcats’ misery

The Illini have won seven straight in the series and have a comically lopsided all-time record of 141-42.

SHARE Illinois 59, Northwestern 56: Kofi Cockburn carries Illini, deepens Wildcats’ misery

Cockburn was too much for the Wildcats.

AP Photos

Illinois and Northwestern ought to be able to agree on at least one thing, and that would be burying any evidence of Saturday’s first half somewhere deep in the woods and never speaking of it again.

Talk about 20 minutes of hell — that’s what a half that ended with the Illini on top 24-19 was to anyone who had the misfortune of being at Welsh-Ryan Arena to endure it.

Between them, the teams heaved 54 shots at the rim and saw only 16 of them reach their intended destination. And that was the good part.

A half so terrible makes one question some things:

Will Northwestern basketball ever get its act together?

Is Illinois really a championship-caliber Big Ten team?

What is the meaning of life?

Is it Sunday yet?

But — hey — the teams played on. The second half was pretty close to terrific. The No. 24 Illini won 59-56, but not without an inspired fight from the Wildcats. It sure would be nice if the games in this supposed rivalry were routinely this exciting and then some.

“Just another day in the Big Ten,” Illini coach Brad Underwood said.

In at least a few senses, that’s accurate. First-place Illinois (15-5, 8-2 Big Ten) moved to 12-2 in its last 14 league road games and 22-3 in its last 25 league games overall. Are the Illini one of the best teams in the country? It doesn’t always look like it — and didn’t in this one — but they just have a way of showing up and putting more points on the board than the other guys.

For Northwestern (9-10, 2-8), it was another come-from-ahead loss in a season full of them.

And for this rivalry, it was — big picture — just more of the same. Illinois has won the last seven in the series and has a comically lopsided all-time record of 141-42. “Throw out the records” when rivals meet, all the analysts say. Yeah, well, Northwestern only wishes somebody would do that. Wildcats coach Chris Collins, in his ninth season, can’t make headway against the Illini, against the rest of the Big Ten or against the cruel basketball gods.

For a while, though, it felt as if all the Wildcats needed to do was reach out and grab a most welcome victory. With the visitors in a not-unfamiliar offensive rut, the Wildcats had a 13-2 burst spanning 5:51 of the second half. Boo Buie tied the game at 29 with a three. Ty Berry hit one of his own to put the hosts ahead 32-31, their first lead. Elyjah Williams faked Illini All-American Kofi Cockburn out of his shoes for a bucket and a 34-31 edge.

And when Ryan Greer hit back-to-back shots, then stole the ball and fed Williams for a three-point play — whoa, it was 46-40 in favor of the Wildcats with just 8:09 to go.

Purple-clad fans chanted “air ball!” at Illini guard Trent Frazier, who earned it with more than one of them. Orange-clad fans — yes, of course they made up at least half the crowd — screamed bloody murder at the refs. It got intense. It smelled like an upset. But the Wildcats couldn’t bring it home, as they so often don’t.

The Illini climbed onto the shoulders of Cockburn (22 points, nine rebounds), and the 7-footer didn’t disappoint in his first game in 12 days after suffering a concussion. Cockburn didn’t get much help from usual bombers Frazier and Alfonso Plummer, but he got enough from seldom-used bench guys RJ Melendez and Brandin Podziemski and from jack-of-all-trades Da’Monte Williams, who followed a Cockburn miss with a giant rebound slam for a 55-53 lead with 1:34 to go.

No doubt, the Illini missed the pace they expected to get all season from point guard Andre Curbelo. But Curbelo — out first with a concussion, then in COVID-19 protocols — has barely played and the team just wins anyway. Not always in pretty fashion.

“It doesn’t matter how you do it,” Underwood said. “I don’t care how we do it. … You figure out how to do it.

“But I keep telling my team every single day, after every game: Defense travels and wins. And rebounding. And toughness. And we’ve got to continue to be that group.”

It’s always more possible with Cockburn, the only 20-and-10 guy in the country and the first major-college player in four years to be averaging at least 21 points and 11 boards this deep into the season.

“It’s just about having the confidence to go down there and score,” he said.

Cockburn didn’t leave without giving a shout-out to Bulls rookie Ayo Dosunmu, who led the Illini to a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed in 2021.

“I take it as a challenge,” he said. “I watched Ayo do it all last year.”

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