January 29, 2022
EVANSTON, Ill. - Kofi Cockburn returned from a two-game absence to score a game-high 22 points and Illinois needed a late 8-0 run to put away a pesky Northwestern team 59-56 on Saturday.
The win puts Illinois (15-5, 8-2) back in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten.
The 7-foot preseason Big Ten Player of the Year had missed the Illini's last two games while in concussion protocol following the double-overtime loss to Purdue on January 17th and Illinois needed every point as he was the only player in double figures for the visitors. Pete Nance led Northwestern (9-10, 2-8) with 21 points.
Illinois jumped out to an early 13-4 lead in the opening minutes, keyed by a pair of three-pointers by Trent Frazier. But the super senior wouldn't score again, settling for six points on 2-of-10 shooting from the field.
The Illini offense went cold again for the third straight game and that allowed the Wildcats to rally. They closed the gap to a 24-19 deficit at halftime - their lowest point total in a half this season - before opening the second half on a 15-7 to take a 34-31 lead.
Cockburn kept Illinois in the game, scoring all seven of those early second half points as he accounted for 14 of his points after halftime.
With Frazier struggling offensively and Alfonso Plummer saddled with foul trouble, freshmen R.J. Melendez and Brandin Podziemski provided some clutch offense. Melendez scored six points, including a pair of free throws to allow Illinois to retake the lead at 37-36. Later, he found Podziemski on a backdoor cut for a layup to halt another Northwestern run. The 2021 Mr. Basketball in Wisconsin hit a three-pointer to pull Illinois within two at 51-49 and set up their late game surge.
The Illini took the lead for good on a Da'Monte Williams follow-up dunk to make it 55-53. Cockburn and Plummer then combined to hit 5-of-7 free throws in the final 90 seconds to secure the win.
Northwestern was vying for its first win over a ranked Illinois team since January, 2014 - Chris Collins' first season as Wildcats coach. Instead, they suffer their ninth loss this season by nine points or less.
At 8-2 in conference play, Illinois is actually one game better than they were last year at the same stage. The hard-fought victory sets up another battle for first place Wednesday night at State Farm Center when 11th ranked Wisconsin visits. The Illini swept the season series against the Badgers in 2021. Wisconsin is 7-2 ahead of their Sunday home game with Minnesota.
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