PHOENIX — Ayo Dosunmu’s alley oop attempt to Kofi Cockburn just seven seconds into Friday night’s game against Grand Canyon, even though it wasn’t successful, set the tone for how the Illini were going to play.
Get Cockburn the ball on the block and let him go to work.
The Illinois freshman center was on the receiving end of the next two Illinois possessions. He drew the first foul on Grand Canyon center Alessandro Lever just 29 seconds into the game and made 1 of 2 free throws. The next Illini possession? Right back to Cockburn for a layup.
Illinois returned to that particular well again and again Friday night.
The 7-foot freshman set career highs with 23 points and 14 rebounds for his second straight double-double. That production — paired with another standout performance from senior guard Andres Feliz with 21 points, six rebounds and four assists — helped propel Illinois to an 83-71 victory against Grand Canyon in front of an absolutely raucous sellout crowd of 7,498 at GCU Arena.
“We wanted to attack them inside, and we have a great, great force, which is Kofi Cockburn,” said Illinois sophomore Giorgi Bezhanishvili. The 6-foot-9 forward added nine points and six rebounds playing alongside Cockburn, who wasn’t made available after the game.
“Throughout the game, we attacked them a lot through Kofi, and it worked and we got the win,” Bezhanishvili continued. “He’s a great player — a great basketball player. He impacts our game in many different ways. He protects the rim really well. He scores the ball really well. He’s a high-energy guy, high-character guy. He influences a lot of people on the team in many different ways.”
Going to Cockburn early and often might have been in response to how Illinois’ season opener against Nicholls State played out in the second half. Cockburn made his his last shot of that game with 14 1/2 minutes remaining and scored one more point after that. Taking more advantage of having such a physical post player was — and will be — the Illini’s goal.
“Having a guy like Kofi, it’s hard to guard him,” Feliz said. “We recognize that every single game. We’ve got to get him more involved in the game early, so that’s something we’re going to do. We’re going to keep doing that for the rest of the season.”
“That man, he goes after it,” added sophomore guard Alan Griffin, who finished with 11 points and three rebounds. “He doesn’t stop. He’s made a big difference, and he’s going to continue to make a difference.”
Cockburn’s Illinois career is off to a rather auspicious start. The last Illini freshman to open a season with consecutive double-doubles in his first two games? Efrem Winters. In 1982 against Vanderbilt (a 58-47 loss) and Texas A&M (a 72-70 win) in Anchorage, Alaska.
“Efrem was pretty good — a pretty good player,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “The thing that excites me at about Kofi is that he has so much more to learn and so much more to garner in terms of his development. He’s an imposing figure. We’ve got to be able to utilize that and take advantage of that.
“I thought (Friday) night we did that. That was the game plan going in. We did that in our secret scrimmage kind of like that. He puts a lot of fouls on people, which then allows our guards to drive the ball and makes them much more difficult to guard. Then we can get o the bonus and get to the foul line. I thought we were aggressive in the first half and did that, and it set up a few opportunities in transition. You have to know where Kofi’s at all the time.”
Cockburn’s double-double was the most obvious result from Friday night’s game. How he affected what Grand Canyon wanted to do was perhaps less obvious from a box score standpoint, but was just as important.
That foul on Lever less not even 30 seconds into the game was the first of three for the Grand Canyon senior in the first half. Lever picked up his fourth foul 2 minutes into the second half and fouled out at the 10-minute mark. Even in limited action, the 6-10 center was able to put up 12 points.
“(Lever’s), if not our best player, then one of our best players,” Grand Canyon coach Dan Majerle said. “We can run a lot of things through him, and he’s given them problems. For him to get in foul trouble, it’s huge. A lot of things we do go through him, and he was having a good game. He had a hard task with that big kid. When he fouls out — like I said, we’re not very deep and not very big — so that kind of limits our size there. That definitely hurt.”
While Lever did reach double digits in scoring — one of four Antelopes to do so with Isiah Brown leading the way with 18 points — what the Grand Canyon big man didn’t have was a rebound. Illinois ultimately out-rebounded the Antelopes 52-26.
“(Lever) had zero rebounds,” Majerle said. “Can you blame him? He’s trying to keep that 7-foot, 290-(pound) beast off the glass. I probably wouldn’t have gotten a rebound either.”