KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For the first eight minutes of the game, it looked like it would be a blowout Illini win. It ended up being a blowout loss to Cincinnati in the Hall of Fame Classic.
Kofi Cockburn returned to action following a three-game suspension and launched his team to a 15-point lead, scoring 12 points in the first 8 minutes of the game. But then the Bearcats’ defense clamped down, and the Illini looked thoroughly flummoxed for the rest of the game, losing 71-51.
Illinois head coach Brad Underwood tried unusual combinations of bench players in hopes of finding the right combination.
“I was trying to score. I was trying to find someone who would execute a play … and actually try to fight on the defensive end,” Underwood said. “I left Da’Monte (Williams) in for a long time because he was the only one getting a rebound, playing with some effort.”
Illinois shot just 16-for-57 from the floor (28.1%) and 3-of-22 from long range (13.6%). By comparison, Cincinnati converted 24-of-58 shots (41.4%) and 28.6% from three-point range (6-of-21).
Austin Hutcherson tallied his first official minutes as an Illini, after sitting out the last two years with injuries and a transfer year. He scored five points in ten minutes of action.
Cockburn led Illinois in scoring with 18 points plus seven rebounds. Da’Monte Williams again led Illinois with ten boards. Andre Curbelo scored a dozen points, but he also committed another five turnovers along with his five assists.
Underwood wasn’t happy with his team’s performance, but admitted that injuries and Cockburn’s suspension have made it hard to gel.
“We’ve been so fractured here early in the season and had no continuity,” Underwood said, “and no togetherness, and guys out and not even being able to come to practice, and it’s an excuse, but it’s relevant.”
Mike Saunders scored a game-high 20 points for Cincinnati. Jeremiah Davenport added 19.
The loss puts Illinois in the consolation game of the Hall of Fame Classic against former Illinois head coach Bruce Weber and the Kansas State Wildcats. Weber’s team lost 72-64 to 13th-ranked Arkansas in the second game of the evening.
It’s the first time Weber will face the team he led to the National Championship Game in 2005. Ironically, Brad Underwood both played and coached at Kansas State.
Weber downplayed the significance of the reunion.
“For the players, they don’t know or care,” Weber said. “They just know that right now they (Illinois) are rated in the top 20, and it’s a challenge. They’ve got a really good big guy (Cockburn).”
Tipoff time for Tuesday’s game is 6:00pm, and it will be televised on ESPN News.
Rob McColley covers University of Illinois sports for WILL.