CHAMPAIGN — Sometimes during a basketball season, teams will experience a letdown after a big, emotional win.
The Illinois-Rutgers series has been an interesting one over the past few meetings, with high-scoring offenses being the norm during this stretch.
On Saturday afternoon, both teams took a different approach, as the Fighting Illini of Illinois won a slugfest 54-51 at the State Farm Center in Champaign, a game that saw poor shooting from both sides.
Coming off the road win at Wisconsin, which snapped a 15-game losing skid for the Illini against the Badgers, nobody really knew how coach Brad Underwood’s team would respond, and early on against the Scarlet Knights, it was apparent that neither team was shooting the ball particularly well.
“Coach (Underwood) emphasizes to us every day about how offense wins games, but defense wins championships, and we held them (Rutgers) to a low shooting percentage and still was able to get the win today,” Illinois center Kofi Cockburn said following the game on team’s effort, despite the struggles shooting the basketball.
Cockburn, who scored 11 points and grabbed a career-tying high of 17 rebounds, recorded his seventh double-double of his freshman season, which breaks the record set by Efrem Winters in the 1982-83 season.
Ayo Dosumnu, who was the hero down the stretch for the Illini in the win against the Badgers, came alive in the closing minutes against Rutgers as well, scoring four points down the stretch, all at the free throw line, to seal the game for the Illini (12-5, 4-2). Dosumnu led all scorers in the game with 18 points, while also grabbing seven rebounds.
“This is one of those games where you need to have the ‘it factor’, and since it was an early game, both teams needed to focus in on their techniques. We got up early this morning (5:30 a.m.) for shootaround, and while you cannot control whether the ball goes in or not, you can control if your man scores on you,” Dosumnu said regarding the early start time, affecting both teams’ shooting.
The Illini trailed at the half 21-18 but came out with renewed energy to begin the second half, as Dosumnu tied the score by draining his team’s first three-pointer of the game after going 0-7 from beyond the arc in the first half.
Dosumnu, ever a student of the game, committed four turnovers against the Scarlet Knights, exactly half of the Illini’s total of eight. He knows that he needs to improve on some aspects of his game, namely taking care of the basketball.
“I noticed right away that I had four turnovers, and I know that I need to take better care of the basketball. I felt I got a bit too careless early in the game with a couple of early mistakes, so that is something that I need to improve on,” Dosumnu added on his turnovers in the game.
Underwood, who spoke highly of his team’s defensive effort, credited the coaching staff for the job that they have done in getting the players ready.
“Even though we only shot 29 percent (18-of-63) as a team, any time that you can do that and win, I’ll take it every single time. The coaching staff has been instrumental in getting these players focused and even though we didn’t shoot the ball very well, overall I’m very pleased because it’s been a rough stretch of five games in twelve days, which was a grind,” Underwood said after the game of his team’s lackluster effort offensively.
Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who dropped 35 on Rutgers last season in their game in Champaign, was held to just 8 points, but had a huge three-point play near the end of the game that shifted the momentum in the Illini’s favor. Bezhanishvili finished the game with five rebounds, including some key boards down the stretch.
Rutgers (12-4, 3-2) is much improved this season, and dealing with the absence of Geo Baker, who is out with an injury, found their scoring from other sources today.
Jacob Young led the Scarlet Knights with 16 points, hit several shots beyond the arc late in the game to keep Rutgers close. However, in the end, Illinois prevailed to extend their winning streak to three games.
“They (Rutgers) aren’t going anywhere. You look at what Steve (Pikiell) did at his other stops, and you see that he is a very good coach. They do a great job of recruiting and getting guys that fit their system, so that is no longer a bottom-feeder in the conference,” Underwood added.
Illinois won the rebounding battle by a 48-42 margin, and fared exceptionally well from the foul line, making 16 of their 19 attempts. Rutgers, on the other hand, struggled from the stripe, only making three of their eight chances.
Illinois will enjoy a week off to work on some fundamentals in practice and will not take the court again until next Saturday, when they will welcome the Northwestern Wildcats to the State Farm Center (4:00 pm, CT, BTN).