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Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

Illinois freshman center Kofi Cockburn backs down Nebraska freshman forward Yvan Ouedraogo as Nebraska freshman guard Charlie Easley comes over to help during Monday night's game at State Farm Center in Champaign. Cockburn had a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds during the Illini's 71-59 win.

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CHAMPAIGN — Kofi Cockburn hit a bit of a freshman wall a month ago.

The Illinois freshman center’s regular double-doubles went by the wayside. Cockburn’s scoring was down, and so were his rebounding totals.

The second — and sometimes third or fourth — effort that was part and parcel of his early successes just wasn’t there.

Illinois coach Brad Underwood attributed some of Cockburn’s struggles to fatigue.

Said he might have played the 7-foot, 290-pound Kingston, Jamaica, native too many minutes.

That didn’t stop Underwood and the Illinois coaching staff from challenging Cockburn to be more assertive in the low post.

Finish stronger.

Rebound more. Cockburn responded in the last week-plus. He made rebounding a priority again at Rutgers, was more efficient offensively at Penn State and put the two together Monday night against Nebraska.

Cockburn’s 11th double-double of the season — 15 points and 10 rebounds — helped Illinois fend off the Cornhuskers for a 71-59 victory in front of 15,354 fans at State Farm Center. The win moves the Illini (18-9, 10-6 Big Ten) into a five-way tie for second place in the Big Ten with four games to play.

“It’s just about making sure I’m more physical and making sure I’m more aggressive,” Cockburn said. “Grabbing the ball with two hands and keeping it up so the (defense) can’t swipe at it. Just being slower and being more exacting with what I’m doing and making sure I go at my pace and not speed it up and turn the ball over.”

Illinois made a concerted effort to get Cockburn involved early in Monday’s game.

Nebraska (7-20, 2-14) brought a regular double team on the Illinois center. Sometimes a triple team just for good measure.

“He puts pressure on the rim — especially bringing two guys to him,” Illinois junior guard Trent Frazier said. “He’s a phenomenal passer. He knows when to go up with the ball or kick it out to one of the guards to shoot open threes. He takes advantage of those opportunities when he has the ball under the rim.”

Cockburn had five points and five rebounds in the first half. Underwood felt like he handled that pressure from the Cornhuskers better after halftime. Cockburn settled in a little more.

“We knew it was coming,” Underwood said about Nebraska’s defensive pressure. “We’d worked on it. I thought he did a better job in the second half, and I thought we gave him the ball in better positions to be successful in the second half. It’s a two-way street. It’s not just Kofi getting doubled or tripled. It’s our guys making sure that they’re making the right reads so they can put him in a position to be successful.”

Two of Cockburn’s rebounds came on the offensive end. Illinois had 19 offensive rebounds for the game — including four apiece from Alan Griffin and Giorgi Bezhanishvili — and turned them into 14 second-chance points.

“He’s a dominant player in there,” Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said of Cockburn. “They had 14 more possessions than we did (Monday) — a lot of them due to him just with offensive rebounds. Then we had too many turnovers. It’s tough to win on the road when you do that — when you give a team that many extra bullets.”

Cockburn finished with 15 points on 5 of 9 shooting — another efficient night after shooting 60 percent in Illinois’ 62-56 win at Penn State last Tuesday night. Underwood still feels like his freshman center is more valuable defensively and crashing the boards.

“We need him to believe that sometimes,” Underwood said. “He has a tendency to worry about, ‘I’m getting triple-teamed.’ Well, that’s part of maturation and growing up and understanding that. It’s truly the ultimate compliment to get a double- or even a triple-team. You can’t demand any more respect from the opponent than that. I thought he stayed very much within himself and was quite good the second half.

“I’ve been really pleased with Kofi throughout the season for his understanding defensively how not to get fouls and to know how much opponents go at him. He guarded a ball screen (Monday) almost every possession of that game. That’s not easy because you have to make the calls, you’ve got to have the right positioning and then you’ve got to understand you’ve got elite level guards coming at you that are trying to put fouls on you. He’s been nothing short of remarkable in that area.”

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).