CHAMPAIGN – Maybe “Surviving Illini” isn’t the best moniker for this group, but they certainly know how to get through a tight game in the first half of their Big Ten schedule.
In their recent four-game winning streak, Illinois has seen three come down to the final seconds, and each time they’ve managed to pull out wins. The victory against Wisconsin on January 8th was a little more enjoyable than just getting by Rutgers on January 11th, since beating the Badgers was a long time coming.
Yet each was enough to get the Illini ranked for the first time since 2014 this past week.
On Saturday, once again, Illinois needed all 40 minutes to get by an undermanned Northwestern team that’s continued to battle despite inexperience and injury. But one good thing for this group, and a big reason why this one might be the team to finally get to the NCAA Tournament, is that they do find ways to win.
The 24th-ranked Illini beat the Wildcats 75-71 on Saturday, trying a number of times to pull away in the second half only to see their in-state rivals keep it close. It wasn’t until Ayo Dosunmu’s two free throws with seven seconds left that fans at the State Farm Center could finally breathe and celebrate the team’s fourth-straight conference win.
Likely to stay in the polls for another week, Illinois improves to 5-2 in the Big Ten, remaining in second place in the conference and a game back of Michigan State. Northwestern falls to 1-6 in the Big Ten as they’ve dropped two-straight conference games after their first triumph a week ago against Nebraska.
Trent Frazier paced the Illini effort with a team-high 16 points, and he made a little program history late in the first half.
Here's to many, many more 💦💦 pic.twitter.com/LZS0vJih5W
— Illinois Basketball (@IlliniMBB) January 18, 2020
His three-pointer with 1:36 to play gave him 1,000 points for his career, becoming the 50th in program history to reach that level. That hoop only put Illinois up by four at the half, and they’d go back-and-forth with the Wildcats the rest of the way.
Kofi Cockburn’s (12 points, 7 Rebounds) hoop-and-foul with 10:47 to go put the Illini up by six, but Northwestern rallied again to cut the lead to two in just 1:16. Giorgi Bezhanishvili (13 points) hit a three with 5:07 to go to put Illinois up nine, but the Wildcats rallied again, and with 44 seconds left got the lead down to three on A.J. Turner’s triple.
But Dosunmu (15 points) would push the lead back to five on a jumper with 18 seconds to go, and after Miller Kopp’s three-pointer with seven seconds left, the sophomore guard hit two free throws to put the game away.
Ugly or pretty, Illinois will take them right now as they continue to rack up wins in the Big Ten