MADISON, Wis. – It’s been quite a few days for Brad Underwood and his team, and it’s not just because they had a number of games in a short period of time.
There was a defeat to Michigan State in a physical game in which Illinois’ best player was injured. It kept Ayo Dosunmu out of the Illini’s final home game of the 2021 season against Nebraska on what was an unusual Senior Night.
Then came a roller coaster game against Wisconsin in Madison on Saturday, one that Underwood would have to play without Dosunmu as they team hopes to add to their NCAA Tournament resume. All are a part of a three-game stretch for the Illini in just five days, which was necessitated by a flurry of COVID-19 postponements this winter.
But despite the busy schedule and the injury to Dosunmu, the Illini managed to come out of the stretch with a winning record.
In what was a full team effort to shake of any potential fatigue and to make up with the loss of Dosunmu, Illinois built a sizable second half lead then held off a late charge to beat No. 23 Wisconsin 74-69.
Kofi Cockburn had 19 while Andre Curbelo had 17 and Da’Monte Williams 12, with each making their contributions to a defense that held the Badgers down till the final two minutes. D’Mitrik Trice put on a brilliant individual display in the final 2:16, scoring 19 points in that stretch to cut a 12-point Illinois lead to one with seven seconds left.
But the Illini were able to stay solid at the line after struggling most of the day, hitting their last ten to hold off Trice’s incredible solo comeback. The win helps Illinois hold onto second place in the conference at 14-4, with a showdown with first place Michigan – another rescheduled postponed game – looming on Tuesday.
That’s a worry for Sunday and Monday, but for now, Underwood tool pride in how the team has handled their toughest stretch of the season.
“The physicality of the Michigan State game, the emotions of Senior Night, come in here to the Kohl Center, to be honest, probably a little fatigued, a little bit tired,” said Underwood of the stretch. “But to find a way to gut it out, man, I could not be prouder of this group of guys and their toughness and their ability to step up and grit was a big part of it tonight.”
Perhaps it will pay off when similar stretches become a little more common in mid-March.