PITTSBURGH — The Illinois men’s basketball team saw its season end ingloriously Sunday afternoon, struggling to find any offensive rhythm against the country’s best defensive team, the Houston Cougars.
Houston advanced to the Sweet 16 with a 68-53 victory. Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson said the key was shutting down Illinois’s primary offensive weapon.
“Kofi (Cockburn), I don’t know how many points he got,” Sampson said. “I think the relevant thing is not how many points he got, but how many shots he got. He got eleven shot attempts. That’s great defense.”
Cockburn, the Illini’s All-American center, led Illinois with 19 points, but they were not easy to come by.
Illinois head coach Brad Underwood acknowledged that feeding Cockburn in the low post was harder without injured forward Jacob Grandison, who played only four minutes of the game.
“We miss Jacob Grandison. Jacob Grandison’s our maestro,” Underwood said. “And Jacob makes everything go for us on the offensive end from his position. He’s an elite passer, I mean, look at his assist totals, and look at those passes and where they go. Most of them go to Kofi.”
The Illini rely on outside shooting when defenses collapse on Cockburn, but as Underwood observed, neither team shot well from outside. But he said Houston made up for it by grabbing its own misses.
“We turned the ball over 17 times, got outrebounded, gave up a boatload of offensive rebounds,” Underwood said. “When you combine turnovers with offensive rebounds, they got nine more field goal attempts than us. It really stresses your offense.”
Trent Frazier and Alfonso Plummer each scored 8 points in their final game for the Illini. Da’Monte Williams went scoreless in 20 minutes of play, also his last appearance for Illinois.
Freshmen R.J. Melendez and Luke Goode played substantial minutes off the bench, sparking a comeback that saw the Illini overcome a 12-point first-half deficit, and eventually tie the game early in the second half. Goode connected on a pair of three pointers, and Melendez scored nine points.
Three Cougars tallied double-figures, led by Taze Moore who finished with a game-high 21 points. Jamal Shead added 18 and Kyler Edwards 15 for Houston.
The Illini finish the season with a 23-10 record. It’s the second straight season that Illinois’ season ends in the NCAA second round, after falling to Loyola Chicago as a number-one seed last year.
Grandison and Cockburn are both eligible to return for another season next year. Neither has announced a decision on that option.
The fifth-seeded Cougars advance to face the top seed in the South region, the Arizona Wildcats, on Thursday night.
Rob McColley covers University of Illinois sports for Illinois Public Media.