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Illini ‘Never Stopped Dreaming’ In Quest For March Glory

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The Illinois team celebrates with the trophy after defeating Ohio State in an NCAA college basketball championship game at the Big Ten Conference tournament, Sunday, March 14, 2021, in Indianapolis. Illinois won in overtime.

INDIANAPOLIS — It took Brad Underwood 26 years to become an NCAA Division I head basketball coach.

But he said he never doubted the time would come.

On Sunday, after Illinois men’s basketball earned the Big Ten tournament title with a 91-88 win in overtime against Ohio State, Underwood reflected on his journey.

“I had a saying when I was at (Stephen F. Austin), ‘dream big,’” Underwood said. “Then I just rephrased it, said, ‘Dream bigger.’ Well, I’ve always been that guy. And yet, I guess, I’ve never been consumed with becoming a head coach in a bad situation, or, I’ve worked with great people that helped prepare me.”

While cutting down the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the Illini saw their name flash across the jumbotron as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. 

It is the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013. The Illini are a number one seed in the tournament for the first time since 2005, and for the fourth time in school history.

Underwood was triumphant, but firm, as he reflected on his journey.

“I’ve never feared or thought about not being here,” Underwood said. “I’ve just dreamt it. I’ve had good fortune, I’ve been very blessed.”

“Has it been easy? No. But I never doubted or stopped dreaming.”

From Stephen F. Austin, Underwood went to Oklahoma State for one season, before coming to Illinois in 2017. Now the Illini could face the Cowboys in a Sweet 16 matchup if both teams advance.

After winning the Big Ten Tournament MVP award, star guard Ayo Dosunmu gave credit to his coach.

“It’s been ups and downs, definitely,” Dosunmu said. “He had some times when people doubted him. Like always, any great person, any great thing, there’s always a time when people doubt them. But he stayed with the course.”

Dosunmu, who is averaging a team-high 20.7 points and 5.3 assists per game, as well as 6.3 rebounds per game, called Underwood one of the most competitive people he has ever met.

“When it comes to winning, when it comes to wanting to get it done, he has that knack,” Dosunmu said. “You just want to go out there and play as hard as you can for him, run through a wall for him.”

Six Illini players scored in double figures in the win. Dosunmu, center Kofi Cockburn and guard Andre Curbelo all scored 16 points each, while combining for 24 rebounds.

Senior guards Trent Frazier (10 points, four rebounds) and Da’Monte Williams (13 points, three rebounds) each made key shots.

Junior forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili took the game over midway through the second half, scoring 10 straight points to expand the Illini lead, though the Buckeyes closed in and forced overtime.

Repeatedly, Bezhanishvili described the team’s accomplishment as an amazing feeling.

“I’m just speechless right now,” Bezhanishvili said. “I think about how amazing I feel and how amazing all this feels, and it was an amazing feeling in the game. I’m speechless, all I know is that my feelings, the feelings here, it’s just amazing.”

Sitting next to Bezhanishvili, Cockburn echoed his overjoyed, emotional tone, but for different reasons.

Cockburn, who moved to the United States in 2015 from Kingston, Jamaica, dedicated the game to his late father. Cockburn’s father died about a year after Kofi moved to New York City.

“I never saw my dad after I came here,” Cockburn said. “He’s been with me the whole time. I’ve been doing this for him the whole time, even though I don’t say it. Just before the game today, I said, ‘You know what? This is what I work hard for. I’m doing this for you, Pops.’”

“I dedicate this game to him. I dedicate this whole season to him. He believed in me when nobody did. He was there for me, he was like a brother to me. Just to know that he’s always there, I want to make him proud.”

Illinois made sure to savor every moment on Sunday. But, as Underwood noted, the team plans on staying in Indianapolis — which is hosting the tournament, along with several other sites in Indiana — for longer than just over the weekend.

With the NCAA tournament bracket set, the Illini will begin their campaign against 16th seeded Drexel on Friday at 12:15 p.m. on TBS.

“I’m ecstatic,” Underwood said. “We’re sitting here with a championship headed into the NCAA tournament, which is the last chapter we’ve all been working towards getting to.”

Gavin Good is a student reporter for WILL.

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