CHAMPAIGN — Illinois men’s basketball coach Brad Underwood was rightly subdued following Tuesday night’s game against Michigan State.
The Illini players, too.
The 70-69 home loss to Michigan State stung, of course. Particularly after Illinois nearly rallied in the second half.
But the idea of wins and losses paled in comparison late Tuesday night, though, to the uncertainty of Ayo Dosunmu’s status. The sophomore guard had to be helped off the court directly to the locker room after the final play of the game saw him sprawled in front of the Illinois bench clutching his injured left leg that buckled awkwardly following a slip and fall as he tried to go for the game-winning basket against the Spartans.
Wednesday afternoon brought at least some clarity. Dosunmu underwent an MRI, and the results showed no structural damage to his leg. A timetable for when he might return for No. 22 Illinois (16-8, 8-5) isn’t known yet. The Illini play at Rutgers (17-7, 8-5) at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday.
“What happened with Ayo (Tuesday) night is as difficult a situation as you’ll see a young man go through, and a feeling where the outcome of the game goes from primary to secondary in a split second,” Underwood said Wednesday. “We received positive news (Wednesday) from the MRI scan. Our medical staff will work with him around the clock on treatment and recovery.
“Ayo and his family have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from Illini Nation and college basketball fans everywhere.”
Dosunmu took to Twitter when the update of his condition was released by the team.
“Thanks for all your prayers #IlliniNation,” his message read. “The dub slipped away (Tuesday) night. (Wednesday), it’s back to work! Be back soon.”
The good news concerning Dosunmu’s condition meant a noticeable shift in mood from just 18 hours prior. With no clear picture on how serious Dosunmu’s slip and fall was at the time, Underwood and the Illinois players could only rely on hope that singular play wouldn’t have further reaching consequences.
Dosunmu’s tumble — and the fact he had to be helped off the court — hit Kofi Cockburn pretty hard late Tuesday night. The 7-foot freshman center has formed a strong bond with Dosunmu this season. On the court, sure, but mostly away from anything basketball related.
“I love Ayo,” Cockburn said following the game. “That’s my brother. He checks on me off the court. He always makes sure I’m good and always makes sure I’m doing good in school. It’s everything except basketball with Ayo. That’s why it hurts me so much to see him fall like that.
“He’s one of those guys that really looks out for me outside of basketball. He has a lot to be focused on, but he still takes the time out to look after me. He’s a great guy if you get to know him. We’ve built a really good relationship.”
Cockburn was trailing that final play, running the court behind Dosunmu with zero doubt that Dosunmu would come up with another game-winner to answer Xavier Tillman’s putback dunk that served as the game-winning points with six seconds to play.
It was simple faith borne from witnessing Dosunmu repeatedly deliver in clutch moments during the last month-plus.
Game-winners on the road against Wisconsin and Michigan.
Late shots to maintain the lead and ice wins against Northwestern and Purdue. All daggers.
Cockburn ran the floor just in case Dosunmu, who had a team-high 17 points Tuesday night, needed a helping hand after hitting what would have been his third winning shot in a month’s time.
The bitter irony was Dosunmu ultimately did need help up off the State Farm Center floor, as the sold-out crowd of 15,544 went from fever pitch to concerned silence in an instant.
Illinois had an off day Wednesday. Underwood called it “refreshing” and “much needed at this point — mentally as well as physically” following the loss to Michigan State.
Game preparation for Rutgers begins Thursday before the Illini head east to face the Scarlet Knights, who Illinois edged 54-51 at home last month.
“I’ve got a very simplistic approach,” Underwood said. “I can only coach who I have. You make adjustments and get into practice. It’s the ‘next man up’ mentality, and I like our group. We’ll figure that out as we get the news.”
It won’t just be one “man” in “next man up” for Illinois, however, if Dosunmu is unavailable this weekend. The Illini would need more from guards Andres Feliz and Alan Griffin, who combined for 24 points and 11 rebounds off the bench against Michigan State.
“Everybody’s got to do a little bit more when you replace a guy of Ayo’s stature,” Underwood said, “but at this point, I don’t know if we have to replace him or not.”
Dosunmu’s fall was actually the second time in two days Underwood watched one of his players go down. It happened Monday to junior walk-on Zach Griffith. The Fisher graduate and former News-Gazette First Team All-Area selection was in a protective boot Tuesday night with a stress fracture.
“If you guys don’t know how important Zach is, you can ask Kofi,” Underwood said. “He busts Kofi’s (butt) every single day in practice and (Giorgi Bezhanishvili’s butt) every single day. I know how had that kid works.
“You get a knot in your stomach when you have one of your guys go down. They’re in the great hands of our medical staff here.”