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Dosunmu Stifles Northwestern Comeback 73-66

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Ayo Dosunmu launches a three-pointer during a 73-66 win over Northwestern on Tuesday in Champaign.

CHAMAPIGN — The Fighting Illini men’s basketball team provided another emotional rollercoaster for fans Tuesday night before putting Northwestern away 73-66.

Ayo Dosunmu scored only seven points before draining a pair of three-pointers in the final 80 seconds to seal the win. He said he took what the defense gave him.

“I was making the right reads. They were hard-hedging me in ball screens the majority of the game,” Dosunmu said. “So I was coming off, whether it was hitting the corner or hitting the throwbacks. And then they played a lot of zone.

“And then you saw, when it was time to win the game, that’s when my closing instincts kicked in.”

Illinois led by as much as 18 points in the first half. But in a reverse of the January 7 game at Evanston, it was the Wildcats who turned things around in the second period.  A Pete Nance bucket closed the gap to a single point with just under five minutes to play, That’s when Dosunmu’s instincts kicked in. He immediately answered with a jumper. The Wildcats were never closer than two points after that.

Kofi Cockburn led Illinois in points and rebounds, garnering another double-double with 17 and 10. But he sat for most of the first half after picking up two fouls. His replacement, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, scored 10 points in his absence. Cockburn said that boost from the bench saved the game.

“For him to come in and pick us up like that with 10 points, play ultimate defense, he talked, he communicated — that’s big time for us because I had two fouls in the first half, Cockburn said. “That could happen any night. It’s the game of basketball. And for him to come in and pick us up like that, it’s really really important for us.”

Adam Miller also added tenpoints for the Illini, and Trent Frazier nine. Field-goal percentage was great for Illinois, at 52% overall and 38% from the arc. It was free-throws that let them down, including during crunch time. Da’Monte Williams, Frazier and Cockburn each split a pair of freebies in the final minutes, mirroring the team’s final 50% (11-22) make rate.

Turnovers were another problem for the Illini, who committed 15 to Northwestern’s 12.  These flaws stood out for coach Brad Underwood.
 
“I thought our defense was really solid. I was really disappointed in our 10 first-half turnovers. 11-of-22 at the foul line — very uncharacteristic,” Underwood said. “That stressed us. Put an extra little bit of tension into our defense.”
 
Dosnumu had five giveaways for Illinois. But he also tied Da’Monte Williams with a game-high 5 assists. Underwood said that Dosunmu should have had 13 assists, but for his teammates missing good shots. The entire Northwestern team managed only four assists.
 
Apart from Cockburn, the top rebounders were guards Andre Curbelo for Illinois, and Anthiny Gaines for the Wildcats. Each of them speared seven caroms.
 
Chase Audige led all scorers with 22 points for Northwestern. Nance added 14 for the Wildcats. Coach Chris Collins said his team did a good job taking away Dosnumu’s right hand, but added that the Illinois star is likely to find a way to beat you.
 
“He’s a terrific college player. I’ve always been a big fan of him. I’ve been watching him play since he’s a freshman in high school,” Collins said. “He’s a great kid. He works really hard, and that’s why he produces in game-situations. He’s worked at his game, and really become this player. Gotta tip your hat to him.”
 
The Wildcats have now dropped 12 straight Big Ten games after winning their first three. Overall, they’re now 6-13 on the season.
 
The Illini improve to 15-5 overall, and 11-3 in the Big Ten. They return to action at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday at Minnesota.  It’s a nationwide broadcast on the Fox network.
 
Rob McColley covers University of Illinois sports for WILL.

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