CHAMPAIGN – At the moment, Brad Underwood’s team is in the middle of a few extremes in their schedule.
After a difficult five-game stretch against teams in the top tier of the Big Ten, Illinois now faces two teams this week who are at the bottom. The first of those games was against Nebraska on Monday night, with the Huskers coming to Champaign on an 11-game losing streak, with the second Thursday at Northwestern.
Trap games perhaps? One wouldn’t think so since a thrilling win at then No. 9 Penn State six days earlier prevented them from going 0-for-5 in that stretch against strong Big Ten foes. Plus at 17 victories coming into the contest, Illinois is still in need of a few more to firmly solidify their place in the “Big Dance” for the first time since 2013.
The good news for the Illini is that they were able to best the Huskers at the State Farm Center on Monday night, even if it was a little close for comfort at times.
— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) February 25, 2020
Nebraska had the Illini tied for a bit late in the first half and early in the second, making a few fans in Champaign a bit nervous on a night they expected a decisive victory. But with the help of some familiar contributors, Illinois eventually pulled away to a comfortable 71-59 win over Nebraska to improve to 18-9 on the season.
It also rose the Illini’s conference record to 10-6, leaving them bunched in a five-way tie for second place in the Big Ten, with everyone two games behind Maryland at the top of the standings.
But it took a bit for Illinois to get there comfortably on Monday night, with the Huskers rallying twice to pull to even around the middle of the game. Dachon Burke Jr’s hoop tied the game at 31 in the final minutes before the Illini got five-straight points to end the half, including three on a memorable 70-foot shot by Trent Frazier.
— Illinois Basketball (@IlliniMBB) February 25, 2020
But once again Nebraska rallied, tying the game at 46 in the second half on a layup by Jervay Green, but that’s as close as the Illini would let it get the last 15 minutes.
Illinois would then look to their core players to break the lead back open, with Frazier’s three-pointer pushing the lead to ten four minutes later, and the rest would contribute down the stretch. Ayo Dosunmu led the way with 18 points while Kofi Cockburn went for another double-double, scoring 15 points and grabbing ten boards.
While it may have lacked style points, it was most importantly a victory, and another trap game comes up on Thursday as Illinois heads to struggling Northwestern. The Wildcats are dealing with a trying year and an inexperienced roster and it’s showed in a Big Ten season where they have only one win, which came against Nebraska in January.