March 18, 2022
(Cover photo courtesy Joe Clark/IlliniGuys)
PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Alfonso Plummer hit a pair of free throws with 12 seconds left and Coleman Hawkins made a key block just moments later as 4th seeded Illinois rallied to avoid an upset bid by 13-seed Chattanooga, 54-53.
The win lifts Illinois (23-9) to the round of 32 against either 5-seed Houston or 12th seeded UAB.
"We were resilient if nothing else", said Illinois coach Brad Underwood. "We didn't play very well and yet we found a way to win."
The Illini defense was outstanding in the second half, holding the Southern Conference champs to just 8-for-30 shooting (27%) from the field. Mocs star and Belleville, Illinois native Malachi Smith, the team's leading scorer and the Southern Conference Player of the Year this season, came in averaging 20 points per game, but was held to just 14 points on 4-for-20 field goal shooting on the night.
That included a pair of potential game-winning shots in the final seconds. Smith's layup after the Plummer free throws was swatted away into the corner by Hawkins. But Smith collected himself and retrieved the errant shot, took a dribble and fired up what would have been an 18-foot game-winning jumper, but it bounced off the rim and into Hawkins' arms as the final buzzer sounded.
This was an uphill battle from the beginning. Illinois managed just two field goals in the first eight minutes of the game, just 2-for-10 shooting from the field. And they weren't any better at the free throw line, making just 2-for-6 there as the Big Ten regular season co-champs fell behind 20-6.
But the Illini managed to claw their way back to within two points at 31-29 behind Kofi Cockburn. The consensus 1st team All-American got a steady dose of double teams again, but managed to score 13 points in the first half despite being only 5-for-10 from the free throw line.
Illinois trailed 33-29 at halftime, but the Mocs opened the second half on a 7-0 run. In came Andre Curbelo and the Illini made their move. Spurred by the sophomore point guard's energy, Illinois answered with a 10-0 run of its own to close within 40-39.
But the Illini never led in this game until the final minute when Cockburn rebounded a missed Hawkins free throw and put in a short jumper in the paint for a 52-21 lead. It was only the 7-foot center's second basket in the second half as he finished with a game-high 17 points to go with 13 rebounds for his 17th double-double of the season. After Chattanooga (27-8) went back ahead on a pair of Malachi Smith free throws, Plummer was fouled while driving for a go-ahead layup and that set up his game-winning heroics.
Plummer scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half, including a trio of three pointers that were Illinois' only made shots from outside the arc. Hawkins added 10 points and eight rebounds in the winning Illini effort.
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