MADISON, Wis. — Less than one minute on the clock, a one-point lead on the road at Wisconsin and possession? There was absolutely no doubt where Illinois would turn to try and put the Badgers away Wednesday night at the Kohl Center.
Kofi Cockburn has put together a standout freshman season. Alan Griffin is in the midst of the best stretch of his Illinois career. Trent Frazier had just knocked down a three-pointer to give the Illini their first lead of the second half with 1:54 to play.
Still, the ball was always going to be in Ayo Dosunmu’s hands. The sophomore guard is Illinois’ closer. That’s true whether it be the three-pointers he hit down the stretch to lead last year’s upset of Michigan State or the charge he was called for on the Illini’s final possession this season against Miami that stopped their comeback attempt cold.
Success. Failure. All of it played into why Dosunmu was going to get that shot against Wisconsin, and he delivered again.
Dosunmu’s stepback three-pointer with 46 seconds to play was the final piece to Illinois’ momentous 71-70 come-from-behind victory against the Badgers.
“He’s got what you don’t coach,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said about Dosunmu. “He’s not afraid. He’s fearless. He’s very, very poised. It takes a certain type of guy to want the ball in those type of situations and not fear the miss.
“He still wants it. He’s not afraid. He’s fearless and he’s been in those moments so often and he knows he’s going to make it more often than not. So do we.”
Dosunmu’s teammates were just as confident he would make that late three-pointer as Underwood. It even came from nearly the same spot at the top of the key as what turned out to be the winner in last season’s win upset of Michigan State at State Farm Center.
“I knew it was going in already,” Griffin said. “We always joke like, ‘Oh, I’m MJ. I’m Kobe. I’ve got ice in my veins.’”
“Ayo’s willing to take the ball in that situation,” Cockburn added. “He’s willing to make a play. I trust him 100 percent. Every time.”
Dosunmu finished with a team-high 18 points to go along with six assists and five rebounds. It was the fourth time in five games the 6-foot-5 guard had scored at least 18 points. This time it meant snapping a 15-game losing streak against Wisconsin and beating the Badgers for the first time since 2011 and first time in Madison since 2010.
Dosunmu said his three-pointer that iced the Badgers was a “great shot,” but the win was bigger than any individual achievement. Following up Sunday’s victory against Purdue with the team’s first Big Ten road win of the season was important.
Still, Dosunmu seized the moment when Illinois needed him.
“You’ve got to rise to the level of your preparation,” Dosunmu said. “That’s what I did. I prepared well for that shot. I work on that shot a lot. I work on my game a lot. It’s also just accepting failures. The game against Miami I got too deep. I lost the game. I learned from it.
“I trusted my instincts. I trusted my dribble move, and I pulled it back and knocked the shot down.”
Failures like the potential game winner turned charge against Miami have been equally as important to Dosunmu’s development as his successes. Both can be crucial learning experiences.
“You’re not going to make every one,” Dosunmu said. “You’ve got to deal with the times where you miss it and deal with the times you fail. I’ve accepted that, and it helped me to get to the spot now where I know when I put it up late game it’s going to go in.”
While Dosunmu’s late three-pointer stood out as a game-changing play and he did lead Illinois with 18 points — just three shy of Wisconsin guard Kobe King’s game-high 21 — closing Wednesday’s win was more about scoring for the Chicago native.
“I hit Alan in transition,” he said. “I hit Kofi on a late lob. I hit Trent in the corner and hit Alan for another three. That’s four plays in a row where, yeah, the play was called for me, but that doesn’t mean I have to shoot it. You’ve got to make the right play.”
Dosunmu made plenty of the right plays in Wednesday’s momentous Illinois victory. It’s one the Illini didn’t plan on celebrating all that long with an 11 a.m. Saturday game against Rutgers — arguably one of the hottest teams in the Big Ten right now — looming.
“To quote Bill Belichick, ‘Rutgers. Rutgers. Rutgers,’” Underwood said was his message to his team following the win. “If you’ve all seen that video, you know that’s really funny. It’s on to the next. It’s on to the next. You don’t get to enjoy these very long, but I’m really proud of them and happy for them. It’s on to the next.”