Illinois 54, Chattanooga 53: Illini take first lead in final minute, avoid major upset

Alfonso Plummer made two free throws with 12 seconds left for the winning points. Coleman Hawkins blocked a shot at the other end before 13th-seeded Chattanooga’s best player, Malachi Smith, misfired on the game’s final attempt.

SHARE Illinois 54, Chattanooga 53: Illini take first lead in final minute, avoid major upset
Chattanooga v Illinois

Illinois’ Da’Monte Williams hounds Chattanooga’s Grant Ledford during the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH — Well, that was nearly a disaster.

A joke. A choke. A total gag, as in cough-cough, not ha-ha.

You know, nearly.

Illinois’ 54-53 win against 13th-seeded Chattanooga in the first round of the NCAA Tournament was almost an epic fail. Almost one of those postseason seize-ups that’s hard to explain, impossible to forget and even more difficult to live down.

Instead, the fourth-seeded Illini — who didn’t lead any point before the final minute of the game — survived by the skin of their teeth. They’ll play again here on Sunday.

“It’s a relief,” coach Brad Underwood said.

A relief and practically a miracle considering how few Illini players performed well and how poorly the team shot the ball for the second straight game, going back to the loss to Indiana in the Big Ten tournament. Not a single Illini player outside of Alfonso Plummer made a three-pointer. Guards Trent Frazier and Andre Curbelo were a combined 1-for-13 from the floor. If it didn’t feel hopeless at times over the first 39:15, it sure bore some resemblances to a lost cause.

All-American center Kofi Cockburn, who finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds, rebounded a missed free throw by teammate Coleman Hawkins and scored with 45 seconds left for a 52-51 lead, the Illini’s first. After Malachi Smith made two free throws at the other end, Plummer drove hard, was fouled and converted a pair of his own with 12 seconds left for the winning points. Hawkins blocked Smith’s baseline try before Smith — the Southern Conference’s player of the year — recovered the ball and misfired on the game’s final attempt.

“I’ve tried to build this thing around the fact that, when you have nights like this in the NCAA Tournament, when you don’t shoot, how do you advance?” Underwood said.

A killer second-half defense helped. The Mocs managed only eight second-half field goals and shot 26.7%. Beyond that, the only thing the Illini (23-9) did particularly well was just kind of hang in there. No doubt, with so many players having a hard night and the pressure to avoid a first-round bust mounting, a team in the Illini’s shoes could have fallen apart.

Plummer, especially, didn’t let that happen. Playing in his first NCAA Tournament game at 24, the transfer from Utah had a personal 8-0 run when the Illini desperately needed it and scored 13 in all — with three long balls that dropped into the net like manna from heaven — in an extraordinarily clutch second half.

It would’ve been even nicer had it been unnecessary for anyone to save the Big Ten co-champs against a 27-win mid-major squad whose nickname is short for Moccasins. Then again, Illinois lost to Chattanooga in the second round in 1997 — still the Mocs’ last tournament victory.

“The next game, we’ve got to pick it up from the beginning,” Plummer said. “I feel like it’ll be a much better result.”

Underwood watched his team fall behind 20-6 in a rudderless, frustrating display. The offense was an unspeakable mess, and Underwood paced the sideline and ranted.

“We’ve got to run something!” he shouted.

“Catch the ball!” he yelled about All-American center Kofi Cockburn.

“Slow down!” he bellowed at mercurial guard Andre Curbelo.

One had to wonder what Underwood was doing to help besides raising his voice. Why wasn’t this team ready to roll? Especially with so many players who experienced last year’s loss as a No. 1 seed in the second round against Loyola.

Down only four at the half, though, all the Illini seemed to need was a fast start coming out of the break to make everything all right. And how did that work out? The Mocs instead blitzed the Illini 7-0 to go up 40-29.

Illinois scored the next 10 points, though, having somehow survived without a single made three until less than 13 minutes remained. That’s when Plummer nailed deep balls on consecutive possessions to cut the deficit to 40-39.

“I feel like every time I shoot it, it’s going to go in,” Plummer said. “I was just waiting for my moment, and it came.”

It almost was a terrible night. Does the next one have to be so hard? Is it too much to ask the Illini to be ready to bring it from the opening tip?

“We’ll go,” Underwood said. “There’s no doubt. We’d better go. We’re one of 32 teams still playing.”

They pulled it out. Anything can happen from here.

GAME CHANGERS

Down 15-6 early, the Illini looked a bit stressed but it didn’t yet feel like a big hole. Out of a timeout, the five players on the floor huddled and encouraged one another to answer big. Instead, up-and-down guard Andre Curbelo lost the ball with a careless dribble, leading to a run-out dunk at the other end. Next time down the court, Curbelo threw a lob at the rim — with no one anywhere near it. The Mocs extended their lead to 20-6, and everyone knows how hard it is to rally from two touchdowns behind.

In brief spurts, the Illini applied full-court pressure that shook up the Mocs or at least zapped their momentum. Pressure in the second half helped get a rally from 40-29 ground off the launching pad.

“It got us going,” Underwood said, “and I thought it provided a little spark in each half.”

Every little bit was needed.

• He didn’t change this game, coming off a shoulder injury and playing less than 10 minutes, but Jacob Grandison is someone Illinois needs to get back in the swing of things — if he can — and help turn the momentum of a struggling offense. Grandison isn’t a major scorer, but he’s a 40% three-point shooter and a calm, smart player who would be great to have as a real option if things bog down in the second round.

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