MINNNEAPOLIS — The Illinois men’s basketball team blew the doors off ‘The Barn’ in Minneapolis Tuesday night, coasting to a 76-53 win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Williams Arena.
Illinois head coach Brad Underwood says he was relieved to find his team competitive after returning from a pause due to positive COVID tests on December 26.
“I had no idea what our conditioning would be like, you know, with ten positives and guys out, and the three-day NCAA break, but I think that our guys were focused,” Underwood said. “I think that our guys rose to that challenge tonight.”
The Gophers entered the game ranked second nationally in three-point field goal defense. That stat hardly mattered to an Illinois team determined to feed its big man in the paint. Junior center Kofi Cockburn tallied his 36th career double-double with 29 points and ten rebounds.
Underwood said Cockburn’s improved passing gives him more opportunities down low.
“Kofi’s shown that he’ll kick the ball out and make those reads, but there’s certain nights Kofi feels like he can just overpower people, and he has that ability to do that,” Underwood said. “I’m glad he’s on our team and wearing our uniform.”
Cockburn connected on ten of his 19 attempts from the floor, and 9-11 free-throws. He also assisted on a pair of baskets when the Gopher defense collapsed on him. As a team, the Illini attempted only 14 shots from long range and connected on six.
Da’Monte Williams converted 3-4 attempts from three-point range. Jacob Grandison hit both his attempts. The Gophers were more successful against smaller Illini shooters. Trent Frazier managed just 1-3 three pointers, and Alfonso Plummer missed all three of his attempts.
Underwood reserved special praise for Frazier’s defensive effort.
“Even more important, I thought the job that Trent Frazier did on Payton Willis, who didn’t have a basket the first half,” Underwood said. “His touches were really, really hard.”
Willis finished with nine points on 3-11 shooting in 38 minutes. Jamison Battle and Eric Curry both scored ten points each to lead Minnesota.
Grandison, Plummer and Williams finished with 11, 10 and 9 points respectively for Illinois.
The Illini doubled-up their hosts on the glass, with a rebounding margin of 52-26. Underwood noted that the Gophers didn’t try to compete for offensive rebounds, choosing instead to get back to the defensive end. That strategy inflated the rebounding imbalance in favor of the visitors.
The Illini are now 3-0 atop the Big Ten standings. They last lost a conference game on February 23, 2021. They’ll return to action Thursday, hosting Maryland at State Farm Center starting at 6pm. All fans in attendance will need to be fully vaccinated and show their CDC vaccination card, or show proof of a negative COVID PCR test from the previous 72 hours.
Rob McColley covers University of Illinois sports for WILL.