Illinois staves off Ohio State with late-game heroics big and small for Big Ten win
Kofi Cockburn walked out to midcourt slowly, with each step his movements becoming more deliberate. He lowered his head. It was late into the overtime period, and Illinois was trailing for the first time all game. Cockburn had been wrapped and fouled at the rim. It was the only way Ohio State could stop him in the first half. The 55% free throw shooter practiced the flick of his wrist in the regulation period, but to no avail: He shot 3-of-7 from the line in regulation and had just missed two more a few plays ago.
Andre Curbello came over and wrapped Cockburn from behind. Good position or not, this was Cockburn’s time — one of the most exciting games of March swung by two uncontested shots from 15 feet. After Curbello broke away, Cockburn held the tension, keeping his shoulders stiff. He shook them out. But the first free throw fell through the net and Cockburn and the Illinois bench loosened.
In the Fighting Illini’s 91-88 Big Ten Tournament final overtime win over Ohio State, Illinois had to do something it hadn’t yet done in postseason play: survive. Illinois coasted to its first two wins as its opponents sacrificed lead after lead seemingly in the same way. But Sunday it was the Illini who had to recover, saving room for late-game heroics big and small (two made free throws). Ayo Dosunmu, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, remembers when Illinois "wasn't good." Now, they're Big Ten champions and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005.
“It’s crazy,” Dosunmu said. “It’s like, ‘Damn, we just won a Big Ten Tournament championship.’”
Down the stretch of Ohio State’s eventual 87-78 win over Purdue Friday, Purdue forward Trevion Williams looked for the same right-handed hook shot nearly every possession in the post. Ohio State set its defense up as if it knew it was coming, but Williams kept scoring. A day later, Michigan’s 7-foot-2 center Hunter Dickinson bounced back from a six-point game in the quarterfinal with 21 points against the Buckeyes. Throughout the tournament, Ohio State’s lack of size made big leads vanish.
Full tourney results:Check out the Big Ten basketball tournament scores
So, in the first 10 minutes Sunday, the Illini exploited them. Illinois didn’t even look at the rim from beyond the arc. They pump-faked and squared straight on the paint, where Cockburn muscled and towered over EJ Liddel in the post. Illinois wasn’t hitting the 3-pointers it did take, but it didn’t matter: Cockburn was scoring and Ohio State wasn’t.
The normally efficient Ohio State 3-point attack was futile, so they looked inside -- which didn’t work either. Near the end of the second quarter, Ohio State’s Zed Key backed into Cockburn on the baseline, and as he spun to the rim, the ball slipped out of his hands and touched out of bounds. Key grabbed the ball and pounded it three times on the floor as Cockburn walked up the court behind him toward yet another possession he’d get inside position for an offensive rebound (he was fouled and missed the front end of the one-and-one).
“If we hadn’t fouled them,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said. “I thought our defense was as locked in as they could be.”
But then Ohio State broke its 3-point drought (it missed its first eight attempts) with under four minutes to play in the first half. They cut 17 to five at the half, and then four when the game restarted. Early in the second half, Cockburn backed down an Ohio State defender. He bumped with his inside shoulder and the ball slipped free of his hands, knocking it out of bounds as he tried to regain control. Roles reversed. Ohio State was coming back.
With less than 30 seconds left in the game, EJ Liddell worked in the post, missed a layup got his own rebound and converted the second-chance plus the foul. At the free-throw line, he caught an extra breath as he held the ball halfway through the shooting motion in front of him and drained the free throw to send the game to overtime.
“Elite college basketball game,” Underwood said.
Illinois looked like it had lost control. Ohio State finally led. Cockburn got fouled on one of the first possessions of overtime. He looked down, went up, missed one. Looked down, went up, missed two. But Illinois settled down, and Cockburn did, too. He drained his next two attempts. The Illini led, still possibly in need of heroics.
With just under a minute remaining in the game, Curbello got a handoff and dribbled with his right hand toward the wing. Perhaps, now, it was Curbello’s time.
He danced, out of the way of Ohio State defenders and into an open spot on the floor. He pulled up, hit nylon and side-stepped down the floor, exposing his clear mouthpiece in a wide grin, skipping towards the bench and into a frenzied crowd of orange.
"It felt good," Dosunmu said. "But I want more."