Thirteen days ago, the Nebraska Cornhuskers took the Illinois Fighting Illini down to the wire, botching the last possession with a chance to win it in regulation before falling in overtime. There would be no doubt in the rematch, as the 5th-ranked Illini pulled away and won in dominating fashion 86-70 on Thursday night in Champaign.
Juniors Trey McGowens and Shamiel Stevenson, along with senior Kobe Webster, were the only three Huskers to score in double figures. McGowens led with 18 points on 7-17 shooting, while Stevenson and Webster each added 12 apiece off the bench.
All-Big Ten Illini guard Ayo Dosunmu, the best player on the floor for the overtime game back on February 12, was unavailable due to a facial fracture suffered two days ago in a loss to Michigan State. It didn’t matter. Nebraska (5-17 overall, 1-14 B1G) failed to corral his supporting cast. Kofi Cockburn was unstoppable down low in the second half, leading all scorers with 24 points, 18 after halftime. Illini freshman guard Adam Miller stepped up in Dosunmu’s absence, starting hot with 16 first half points. Reserve guard Andre Curbelo posted a 10-12-8 line, just two assists shy of a triple double.
Early on, Illinois (17-6, 13-4) grabbed the lead and never trailed. Nebraska got to within two points at 23-21 with 5:18 to go in the first half after a Fred Hoiberg timeout led to a mid-range runner from junior Teddy Allen and a 3-point play by junior forward Derrick Walker. It was the last time the Huskers would be within one score the rest of the way.
Miller responded for Illinois. with a personal 7-0 run to extend the Illini lead back to nine, 30-21, at the 3:09 mark. The deficit facing the Huskers grew to 36-25 on another bucket for Miller with 24 seconds before the break. A lucky bounce left the ball in Kobe Webster’s hands with the clock ticking down, and he nailed a 3-pointer just seconds before the halftime whistle, making the score 36-28.
Play before the break was chippy and disjointed due to 20 total foul calls, including two instances of double technicals and a 5th team technical foul against Illinois. The teams also combined for 22 first-half turnovers, 12 of which belonged to Nebraska. While NU only gave it away five times in the second half, the damage was done.
After playing just 11 first-half minutes due to picking up two fouls, including one of the technicals, Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn took over in the second half. In a 1:31 stretch, Cockburn made four straight free throws (the first two after an intentional foul called on NU freshman Eduardo Andre), then a dunk, followed by a 3-point play. The nine-point run extended Illinois’ lead to 51-36 with 15:09 left.
Trey McGowens answered with back-to-back 3-point plays of his own, both impressive drives to the hoop, to cut the deficit back down to nine at 51-42. It was the last time Nebraska would be within single digits as Illinois answered every Husker basket. NU was down 11 points after five consecutive made field goals, two apiece from Webster and Stevenson and the final jumper from McGowens. On this night, even without Dosunmu, the Illini never wavered.
Teddy Allen, less than 48 hours removed from dropping 41 on Penn State, was held in check by Trent Frazier and Illinois, scoring just five points on 2-6 shooting. Junior Lat Mayen, who led NU with 16 points in the first Illinois matchup, did not score, missing all three of his shots in 26 minutes of action. Sophomore Dalano Banton, held scoreless himself by Penn State on Tuesday, bounced back with six points and four rebounds. Walker and Andre, each tasked with defending Cockburn, added seven points each.
In the paint, it was no contest. Illinois scored 46 of their 86 points near or at the rim, and they also enjoyed a 43-29 rebounding advantage. In the second half alone, the Illini grabbed nine offensive boards, scoring 12 second chance points. The Huskers’ leading rebounder was Walker with five.
Nebraska will now travel back from the Land of Lincoln to Lincoln, NE to play two home games over the next four days. Next up is Minnesota, who just lost to Northwestern Thursday night. The Gophers beat the Huskers 79-61 in Minneapolis back on February 8, NU’s second game back from their Covid layoff. The rematch is Saturday inside Pinnacle Bank Arena at 6pm.