Red-hot Rutgers Sends Illini Back Into First Place Tie in Big Ten

IlliniGuys Staff

February 16, 2022

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- The winningest road team in the Big Ten over the last three years never got off the bus in New Jersey.

Kofi Cockburn scored 20 points and pulled down ten rebounds for his school-record 42nd career double-double, but Ron Harper Jr. scored 16 points as Rutgers ran its winning streak over ranked opponents to four as they upset 12th ranked Illinois 70-59 Wednesday night in a game that wasn't that close.

For the first time this season, Illinois (18-7, 11-4) never led in a game. Cockburn scored the Illini's first seven points, the last pulling the Illini within 8-7.  But the Scarlet Knights would score the next nine points as they went on to build a 24-11 lead.

Illinois missed its first 13 attempts from the three-point arc, finally breaking through on a Trent Frazier three just before halftime to close with 33-24 at the break.

Jacob Grandison drained a trey in the opening seconds of the second half to pull Illinois within six, but the visitors' offense went ice cold yet again.  The Illini managed just four field goals over the next 13 minutes as Rutgers took a commanding 60-37 lead and appeared on their way to a rout.

That's when RJ Melendez caught fire.  The freshman hit five free throws and a three-pointer to key a 14-2 run and pull Illinois back to a 62-51 deficit.  But Rutgers (16-9, 10-5) had an answer for every Illini run as Harper threw in a dunk after a timeout.  Illinois got as close as nine points after that at 66-57, but the Scarlet Knights put the game away on free throws.

Trent Frazier scored eleven points for the Illini and Melendez finished with ten, all coming in the final six minutes.

Illinois came into the night with a conference-best 18 road wins over the last three years, four more than Wisconsin, and had won eight of ten and 13 of 16 in opposing Big Ten arenas.  But they are winless in Piscataway since 2018, Brad Underwood's first year as Illini head coach.

For the sixth time in their last eight games, Illinois failed to shoot 33% from the three-point arc, managing to connect on just 6-of-23.  The Illini are 13-2 when they hit at least one-third of their three-point attempts; 5-5 this season when they do not.

The loss drops Illinois into a three-way tie for first place with Purdue and Wisconsin at 11-4.  The Boilermakers play at Northwestern later Wednesday night.

Suddenly, Rutgers is in the hunt for its first ever Big Ten championship.  The Scarlet Knights have beaten a then-14th ranked Michigan State and 16th ranked Ohio State before upsetting then-#14 Wisconsin on the road last Saturday to improve to 10-5 in conference, a game out of first place.

Illinois gets only a short break before traveling to East Lansing to face 19th ranked Michigan State on Saturday (11am, ESPN).  The Spartans have lost three of their last four and will be looking for revenge for dropping a 56-54 decision last month to an Illini team playing without Cockburn, who missed the game while in concussion protocol.  At 9-5 in conference play, they need to beat Illinois to avoid falling two games behind the league frontrunners in the loss column.

Stay with IlliniGuys.com for complete postgame coverage and analysis.

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