INDIANAPOLIS — The Fighting Illini men’s basketball team will face Ohio State for the Big Ten Tournament crown Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis. Illinois downed the Iowa Hawkeyes 82-71 in what might be the final meeting against Iowa’s National Player of the Year, Luka Garza.
Kofi Cockburn prevailed in the battle of the big men, and not just in his team’s victory. Cockburn also outscored Garza 26 to 21. Each player led his team in that category. Garza also grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds.
Ayo Dosunmu added 18 points for the Illini, while Andre Curbelo chipped in with 12 points off the bench. Jordan Bohannon contributed 20 points for the Hawkeyes.
Illinois coach Brad Underwood shared a moment with Garza after the game to offer his praise.
“I have so much admiration for guys who aren’t ballyhooed and ‘five-stars’ and this and that,” said Underwood. “I watched him play in AAU, and now he’s the national player of the year and probably will be for a second time.
“I knew he was going to be special in the first game of his freshman year. I think he had 19 or 20 against us. I have so much respect for him, and how hard he works. He’s a great, great competitor … I told him that.”
Garza said both teams have improved significantly since their first meeting of the season, which Illinois won 80-75 on January 29th.
“I think both teams have improved a lot on the defensive end. Both of us. You know, at that point they were ranked 19th or 15th or something like that,” Garza said. “You see where they are now, and that’s ’cause they really, really ramped it up on the defensive end.
“And we’ve done the same.thing. And tonight you saw a really physical game between two great teams. Credit to them, they were just better than us for certain stretches.”
Garza said the Hawkeyes missed some chances to wrest the game from Illinois, which controlled the flow and held a comfortable lead for all but a few possessions of the second half.
“We had some moments where we could’ve got ourselves back into the game. Cut it to five, different things like that. That’s obviously upsetting, but we know we’re not done yet. We’ve still got the thing we’ve been dreaming of for a while (a national championship), so we’re focused on that.”
Underwood agreed that the difference in Saturday’s game was Illinois’s defense.
“I thought the job Adam Miller did on C.J. Fredrick was tremendous,” he said. “And then I thought Kofi was outstanding. His performance in the first half was just dominant. Not just because he scored 18 but because the job he did defensively. He stayed out of foul trouble in that half.”
Illinois outrebounded Iowa 42-35 for the game, and only allowed the Hawkeyes to grab six offensive rebounds. The Illini also won the turnover battle, giving the ball up just eight times compared to 12 for Iowa. That showed up in points off turnovers, where the Illini had the edge 19-6.
Illinois shot just 3-15 from three-point range, but made up for that with ten dunks in the game.
The tournament final will be the rubber match between the Illini and Buckeyes. Ohio State won 87-81 in Champaign on January 16th. Illinois won the game in Columbus last Saturday, 73-68.
The game tips at 2:30 p.m. CDT on CBS. Here’s a reminder to move your clocks forward one hour Saturday night.
Rob McColley covers University of Illinois sports for WILL.