CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Now that’s how you play 40 minutes of basketball.
Illinois picked up its most impressive win of the early season in a BIG way. The Illini (7-3, 1-1) did just enough to hold off a late rally from the No. 5 Michigan Wolverines (8-2, 1-1) on Wednesday evening at the State Farm Center in Champaign, 71-62.
“I knew this would be a tough game,” said Illinois head coach Brad Underwood. “You know how many games Michigan has won in the last five years? You’re not going to rattle them.”
After failing to execute down the stretch in their two-game skid against Miami and at No. 3 Maryland, the Illini finally put together their most complete performance of the season against the Wolverines. Michigan came to town with an impressive early season resume, but couldn’t keep pace with Illinois in the second half.
“We took that lump Saturday, however we took it,” Underwood said. “I was ecstatic. First time I felt like I was coaching my team. Tonight, I hope we took another step.”
Just as they did against Maryland last Saturday, the Illini came out ready to play. Feeding off a raucous (and almost full) State Farm Center, Illinois found much of its first-half success around the rim in the start of their Big Ten home opener. Sophomore Ayo Dosunmu (14 points, eight rebounds, three assists) got the party started with an early take to the rack and followed it up with an offensive rebound and putback. Those four points would constitute four of Illinois’ 26 points in the paint in the first half. But still, the Michigan Wolverines had a counter for almost each Illinois basket. Despite shooting just 44% in the first half, Illinois pulled down eight offensive boards, part of the reason why the Illini led 30-28 at the break.
Illinois didn’t miss a beat in the second period either. The Illini established themselves as the aggressors early on, not shying away from contact, hitting the boards hard and getting after loose balls. They got into the bonus with over 10 minutes remaining in the game and made the most of their opportunities from the stripe (14-20 FTs). Freshman Kofi Cockburn (19 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks) produced down the stretch when the Illini needed him most and Giorgi Bezhanishvili (12 points, eight rebounds) threw down one of the meanest hammers of the season.
“Kofi’s presence was very strong for [Illinois] inside,” said Michigan head coach Juwan Howard. “He’s a very physical guy, one of the best offensive rebounders in college basketball.”
The Illinois lead got as close as four points with 86 seconds to go, but the Illini continued to fight off the Michigan comeback. With under a minute to go, Cockburn and Dosunmu free throws sealed the deal as the Illini pushed their lead to multiple possessions and pulled off the upset, 71-62.
“We’ve always had the swagger,” Dosunmu said. “We’re playing with more intensity and more confidence. Now, it’s all about sustaining.”