Photo: David Craan/University of Illinois Athletics
INDIANAPOLIS — Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Kofi Cockburn were at a loss for words as they observed the spectacle of a Big Ten Tournament Championship Sunday in Indianapolis.
“I was trying to collect the whole moment within me,” said Bezhanishvili. “All these people who I’ve been with every single day, working, and see them, so so happy . It just brings me so much joy and I was trying to absorb that and that was amazing. It was amazing. It was so amazing. It was amazing.
“Wasn’t it amazing, Kofi?”
“Amazing,” agreed Cockburn.
“Wasn’t it amazing?” repeated Bezhanishvili.
“Amazing amazing,” agreed Cockburn.
“Amazing. Oh my god,” Bezhanishvili finished.
The pair combined for 28 points and 15 rebounds from the center position, leading Illinois to a 91-88 overtime win over Ohio State and a 1-seed in the NCAA Tourney. The Illini open play Friday at 12:15 p.m. against Drexel at Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis. That game will be televised on TBS.
If the Illini advance, they could face Missouri Valley Conference champion Loyola-Chicago in the second round on Sunday. The Ramblers play Georgia Tech in the first round on Friday.
Illinois got 16 points apiece from Ayo Dosunmu and Andre Curbelo, 13 from Da’Monte Williams and 10 from Trent Frazier. The team withstood a 32-point effort from Duane Washington Jr., who carried the Buckeyes from a 17-point deficit into overtime.
Illini coach Brad Underwood, who had championed Washington’s abilities throughout the season, was saddened that he couldn’t praise Washington personally after the game.
“That’s one of the toughest things,” said Underwood. “One team loses and they’re dejected.
“He’s an underclassman, unfortunately,” Underwood joked, meaning that Washington may return to haunt the Illini in the future. “I’ll make sure that I reach out to Chris (Holtmann, to convey regards to Washington). I’m just ecstatic that I can root for him, and not have to compete against him. Twice in the last ten days is a bunch.”
Justice Sueing added 22 points for the Buckeyes, including 9-9 free throws to keep them in the game. C.J. Walker scored 16 for Ohio State.
Bezhanishvili and Cockburn rotated in and out, substituting for each other throughout the game as each battled foul trouble. During one crucial second-half stretch, as the Buckeyes closed the gap, Bezhanishvili scored ten straight points for the Illini to cheers of “Gior-gi, Gior-gi” from a largely orange-clad crowd that had trouble remaining socially distanced inside Lucas Oil Stadium. He fouled out at the end of regulation.
Cockburn also had trouble on the other end of the foul equation, managing to connect on just 6-13 free-throw attempts. But he drilled a pair with 1:39 remaining in the extra period, bringing Illinois to an 81-81 tie with the first, and giving them a lead with the second.
The Buckeyes ran out of chances when E.J. Liddell dribbled the ball off his own foot during the subsequent possession, and Curbelo nailed a short jumper to increase the Illini lead to three. Another turnover followed from Sueing with 39 seconds remaining, and Illinois iced the game with a pair of free throws each from Curbelo and Da’Monte Williams.
Other than Cockburn, Illinois was nearly perfect from the line. Ayo Dosunmu missed one of his four. Bezhanishvili converted six of six. Ohio State converted 22-30 free throw attempts.
Illinois committed just ten turnovers to the Buckeyes’ eight. The Illini grabbed 42 rebounds, Ohio State 37.
Underwood twice evoked the memory of his first contest as Illini coach — an 80-67 exhibition loss at Eastern Illinois in November 2017 — to dramatize the long way his team has come in four years. He enumerated their bona fides to stress that they’d earned their top seed.
“Call me old school if you like. There’s nothing better than hearing your name come across and be seen on the screen when it’s called for the NCAA Tournament. There’s 353 Division I schools, 68 get in. This group has 19 wins against Big Ten opponents this year, more Quad One wins (12) than most teams have played Quad One games. So, it’s awesome.”
Underwood wished he could celebrate Sunday’s triumph with his wife and daughters, but the team is now locked inside the NCAA’s Indiana bubble.
“We go into testing and we go into quarantine. It might be a steak ordered in and some shrimp cocktail from a certain restaurant … maybe more than one shrimp cocktail … and there might be a really, really good glass of red wine somewhere in my plans this evening,” he said.
Ohio State and Iowa both earned number 2 seeds in the tournament, and Michigan the fourth number 1 seed. In all, nine Big Ten teams received tourney berths.
Rob McColley covers University of Illinois sports for WILL.