CHAMPAIGN – If just a play had gone the other way in their previous two games, things would have been totally different Wednesday night at the State Farm Center.
For one, Illinois probably would have been ranked, and second, the mood among the fan base would have been a little better before a critical contest against a Top 5 Big Ten opponent. Instead, the enthusiasm was tempered by a loss to Miami in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and a defeat on the road to No. 3 Maryland.
In each game, Brad Underwood’s team had the ball on the final possession to take the lead, only to turn the ball over in defeat. The latter against the Terrapins was especially painful, considering that Illinois led by 15 points in the second half and ended up losing the advantage in the final two seconds.
After that game, Underwood insisted that his team grew in the two defeats, even if the fan base was a bit downtrodden after two early-season defeats. The coach’s assessment looked a lot better after 40 minutes against the Wolverines on Wednesday night.
Instead of peaking in the first half, the Illini turned it on in the second, and in the process knocked off fifth-ranked Michigan 71-62 in Champaign to improve to 7-3 on the season. One could argue it’s the biggest win over the Underwood era at the school since it began in 2017 and it’s the first win for the Illini over a Top 5 team since their upset of No. 1 Indiana in 2013.
Freshman Kofi Cockburn, who continues to impress in his first year with the program, recorded his sixth double-double of the season, scoring 19 points and grabbing ten rebounds while also blocking four shots. He essentially put the game away with a hoop-and-foul with 3:13 left in the game to put Illini up 12, but it’s his reaction and unfortunate timing that many are discussing after the game.
Kofi Cockburn celebration gone wrong 😬pic.twitter.com/SgndeT1Ygd
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) December 12, 2019
Cockburn threw his arm forward in celebration after the hoop went in and accidentally hit referee Lewis Garrison, who was forced to leave the game. There was no intent on the center’s part, so no punishment of any sort was given, but the game was completed with just two officials.
Outside of that, it was as good of a night for the Illini as they might have hoped for as they shot 46 percent from the floor and beat the Wolverines on the offensive glass by nine. Ayo Dosunmu had 14 points with Andres Feliz chipping in 13 off the bench and Giorgi Bezhanishvili 12.
All of these efforts came over the course of 40 minutes following two inconsistent efforts that brought out some early frustration for the fan base. But in the end, Underwood was right, and his team’s growth was shown on Wednesday night.