Illini outmuscled, out-hustled and — again — all out of time in NCAA second-round loss

It was intense and physical from the start, threatened — briefly — to turn pretty great in the second half but ultimately, perhaps inevitably, turned the Cougars’ way while putting the Big Ten co-champions’ weaknesses under the harsh glare of the spotlight.

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Houston v Illinois

Kofi Cockburn operates inside in the first half against Houston.

Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH — Another second-round snakebite for Illinois.

They all hurt and leave a mark. This one is no different.

Houston beat the Illini 68-53 on Sunday in an NCAA Tournament meat grinder that was intense and physical from the start, threatened — briefly — to turn pretty great in the second half but ultimately, perhaps inevitably, turned the Cougars’ way while putting the Big Ten co-champions’ weaknesses under the harsh glare of the spotlight.

And as season-enders go, this one brought a lot. It was the finish line for super seniors Trent Frazier, Illinois’ No. 5 all-time scorer, and Da’Monte Williams, who appeared in more games (159) than any Illini player. More dramatically, it likely — though not for certain — was all she wrote for All-America center Kofi Cockburn, who has another year available to him but sounded after the game like someone who intends to meet doubts about his NBA potential head-on.

“It hurts really bad, especially for the guys that are leaving,” Cockburn said. “We always want to leave with, like, with a good feeling, you know?”

The fifth-seeded Cougars (31-5) will head to San Antonio for the South Region semifinals Thursday. The fourth-seeded Illini (23-10) go home, just as they did last year after a second-round loss to underdog Loyola in a 1-vs.-8 game.

Illinois beat Chattanooga by a point Friday, running the school’s record in 4-vs.-13 games to 7-0. But the last six of those Illini teams then lost to No. 5 seeds in Round 2. Add Houston to Alabama in 1986, Florida in 2000, Notre Dame in 2003, Washington in 2006 and Virginia Tech in 2007. Illinois still hasn’t sniffed the Sweet 16 since 2005.

“The one thing to do is keep getting back here,” an emotional coach Brad Underwood said. “We will keep getting back here.”

Illinois started off promisingly with a Coleman Hawkins three, a long two from Frazier and a drive to the bucket for a score by freshman RJ Melendez. But troubles came quickly.

Houston swarmed the offensive glass, which the Illini couldn’t stop. It dared Williams to shoot, which he wouldn’t do despite being open, and dared the long, athletic Hawkins to be aggressive, which he declined to be. The Cougars pressured passes, banged into Cockburn, beat the Illini to loose balls and went to the basket fearlessly themselves.

A 5 seed in name only? The metrics-based rankings regard the Cougars far more highly than that. Even with four new starters from last season’s Final Four crew, they outmuscled, outhustled and outclassed the Illini.

“Our kids are tough kids,” coach Kelvin Sampson said. “This is a tough program.”

It was a reunion of sorts with Sampson, whom Illini fans did not remember well before this matchup. Sampson resigned at Indiana amid scandal in 2008, was banned by the NCAA for five years and has won big with the Cougars since resurfacing in 2014. But in Illini country, he’ll always be the guy who stole mega-recruit Eric Gordon in 2006. And now this.

Sampson surely doesn’t care what Illinois fans think of him, but members of this Illini team do. Frazier, who played poorly since the Big Ten tournament while battling pinkeye, was stung enough by criticism to discuss it unbidden in a postgame news conference with players — cut mysteriously short — before doing the same on Twitter.

Meanwhile, whatever Frazier read or heard was nothing compared with the negativity and strangeness surrounding the end of Andre Curbelo’s season. The sophomore point guard got into a heated discussion with referees before the game and had to be pulled away by three Illini staffers. Underwood would only say it had to do with a “piece of gear” Curbelo was told he couldn’t wear. In the game, he was 0-for-4 from the field and committed turnovers on two inbound passes before being benched for the final 26 minutes.

“Coach’s decision,” Underwood said curtly.

With the Illini suffering on the perimeter — they shot 34% from the field and a miserable 6-for-25 from the three-point line — Underwood leaned hard on freshmen Melendez and Luke Goode, neither of whom got off the bench in the first round. Goode hit a pair of threes in the first half to make the game close. Melendez was a revelation, driving hard at the rim, scoring, creating chances for others and giving fans something to look forward to.

Alas, certain older, bigger-name players simply couldn’t handle this pressure-packed test.

“We turned the ball over 17 times, got outrebounded, gave up a boatload of offensive rebounds,” Underwood said, “and the fact that they got nine more field-goal attempts than us, it stretches your offense.”

Houston — all arms and fingertips, everywhere at once — was more than capable of doing that without the assistance. The score was 47-45 after a Cockburn three-point play with eight minutes left, but it was all Cougars from there. Blocked shots, tipped passes, 50-50 balls won, “oohs” and “aahs” caused by their speed and effort. No doubt, the better team won.

And in the end, the quality of this Illini team was open to debate. There was Frazier’s vision trouble and Jacob Grandison’s late shoulder injury, which were damaging. There were early-season bouts with COVID-19, a three-game Cockburn suspension and Curbelo’s concussion, after which his play never fully rebounded. But too often in March, it seemed Cockburn was out there close to alone. Too often, Underwood seemed without a notion of what to do to make things better.

Yet another tournament moves along without them. Villanova won here, too, on Sunday, beating Ohio State, and is off to chase another national title for coach Jay Wright. 

Tiny St. Peter’s is still just as alive as Gonzaga and the other giants. Sixteen teams in all, bound for San Antonio, San Francisco, Philadelphia and — hey, would you look at this? — Chicago.

More basketball to come. Dances, shining moments and nets cut down. Illini backers can watch, or not. It’s still not their turn.

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