Dosunmu, Cockburn come up big again
Illini top Rutgers, move into second place in the Big Ten
CHAMPAIGN — Welcome to the wild Big Ten. The last two seasons, Illinois and Rutgers finished among the bottom four in the conference. They battled Saturday for sole possession of second place.
The Illini secured it with a 54-51 victory at the State Farm Center, winning their third straight conference game.
The low-scoring affair was ugly, but will qualify as a beauty for fans eager to see Illinois (12-5, 4-2) ascend in the Big Ten. The Illini sit behind only Michigan State in the standings. Coach Brad Underwood underplayed the meaning.
“We have two-thirds of the season left,” he told reporters in Champaign. “The next game is going to be just as hard as this one.”
Here are three takeaways from the Illini victory:
1. Protecting home court is vital.
Illinois hadn’t won its first three Big Ten games in Champaign since the 2011-12 season. Included in those are wins this season against conference heavyweights Michigan and Purdue. The Illini improved to 10-1 overall at home. Credit them for avoiding a letdown.
Give Credit to Illinois for avoiding a letdown. The Illini faced an 11 a.m. tipoff after a meaningful road win against Wisconsin but delivered against a hot Rutgers team. Illinois can add to its strong home record Saturday against Northwestern (5-9, 0-4).
2. The Illini defense looked dominant.
The Illini entered the game with the best scoring defense in conference play, holding opponents to 60.8 points per game.
Rutgers (12-4, 3-2), known for its strong defense, scored the second-fewest points this season to Purdue’s 37 on Sunday. While Illinois struggled offensively, scoring only 18 points in the first half and shooting only 28.6% from the field overall, it held the Scarlet Knights to just 34% shooting. The Illini outrebounded them 48-42.
“When you shoot 29%, you better find a time to win,” Underwood told reporters. “We shot 19% in the first half and found a way to win it against a good Rutgers team. I’m proud of our guys today. This shows the growth we’ve been seeing all year.” 3. It sure helps to have reliable stars.
No, Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu haven’t been perfect every game. But it has become clear they can help carry Illinois to victory.
Cockburn, a 7-footer, recorded his seventh double-double with 11 points and 17 rebounds. His total on the boards tied the freshman record he set this season. He also hit 5 of 6 free throws.
But it was sophomore guard Dosunmu who again sealed the victory with clutch shots — including four free throws in the final two minutes. It was a strong follow-up to the Wisconsin victory in which he made a go-ahead layup and 3-pointer in the final 90 seconds.
He scored 18 points Saturday — all but two after halftime — and added six rebounds.
“Coach has that trust in me down the stretch,” Dosunmu told reporters. “I like to seize the moment.”
Illinois' Ayo Dosunmu puts up a 3-point shot against Rutgers on Sunday in Champaign, Ill.