INDIANAPOLIS — The first time Illinois center Kofi Cockburn and Iowa center Luka Garza faced off, back in 2020, Garza owned the day.
The Hawkeyes’ 6-foot-10 playmaker made Cockburn look inexperienced and uncomfortable, limiting him to just six points in a 72-65 Hawkeyes win in January of 2020. On that day, Garza exploded for 25 points and 10 rebounds on 9-16 shooting in front of a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.
But on Saturday in the Big Ten tournament semifinals in Indianapolis, it was Cockburn who had his way as the Illini earned an 82-71 victory to advance to their first Big Ten tournament title game since 2008.
All eyes were on the matchup between Garza and Cockburn down low, especially after the Illini had gotten the better of the Hawkeyes in an 80-75 win in Champaign on Feb. 2.
Illinois guards Ayo Dosunmu and Andre Curbelo repeatedly picked apart the Hawkeyes’ defense, often finding Cockburn in enough space to throw down dunks. He scored 18 points in the first half, ultimately finishing with a game-high 26 points on 11 of 17 shooting, while adding eight rebounds.
After the win, Curbelo gave glowing praise of his teammate.
“I knew (Cockburn) was going to dominate,” Curbelo said. “I tried to find him as much as I did because he was just on fire today. He was on go mode.”
“We had to make Luka Garza tired. A lot of credit to him, a hell of a player. That was our game plan and we executed it, Kofi did a hell of a job on him.”
Cockburn blanketed Garza any time he stepped into the paint, refusing to concede an inch, much less a clean look at the hoop. Garza had scored 21 points by the end, but he went just 8-21 (38.1%) from the field, his third-worst mark of the season so far.
Coming into the game, Cockburn was expecting a slugfest.
“It’s always hectic, man,” Cockburn said. “He’s a really great player; he will be too in the future. I respect the hell out of him. It’s just about coming out and competing, throwing punches, getting punched, that’s what it’s about, being aggressive and just doing what you’ve got to do for your team.”
He learned the hard way in the teams’ first meeting of 2020. Then, though he blocked Garza’s shot on the final play of an Illini win in early March of 2020, the last game that would be played for either team before the pandemic ended the season, Cockburn had yet to outshine Garza head-to-head.
But after dedicating himself to making improvements in his game over the last year, Cockburn has realized that experience and knowledge are just as important as strength, size or talent.
“It’s all about being a sponge,” Cockburn said.
“It’s about taking as much info and as much knowledge as I can from those guys, playing against them. That experience taught me a lot to be able to be the player I am right now. So it was just about being a learner, listening, watching and being observant.”
After the January loss in Champaign, Garza said he hoped to see the Illini “in the Big Ten tournament or past that.” Saturday’s meeting had the feel of a big-time college basketball game, even with a significantly limited capacity.
His coach, Fran McCaffery, remarked that he had wished the showdown had been able to be packed to the brim, just as 2020’s final encounter was.
“I said to Brad before the game, ‘This building should’ve been nuts,’” McCaffery said. “That’s what I miss for the kids.”
“Those kids deserve a packed house, everybody going crazy.”
Garza played 35 minutes, though he spent a lot of time on the court with four fouls late in the game. Some of those were drawn by Cockburn’s efforts, but regardless, Garza never was able to establish any rhythm on either end of the floor.
Like Curbelo, Underwood only had nice things to say about his star center. On Sunday against Ohio State in the tournament final, he’ll undoubtedly hope Cockburn can replicate his performance from Saturday.
“I thought Kofi was outstanding,” Underwood said. “I thought Kofi’s performance in the first half was just dominant. Not just because he scored 18, but the job he did defensively. He stayed out of foul trouble in that half and was very good.”
Gavin Good is a student reporter for WILL.