CHAMPAIGN — Missed shots galore combined between Illinois and Rutgers on Saturday at State Farm Center meant plenty of rebounds would be there for the taking.
Kofi Cockburn took them.
Illinois’ 7-foot freshman center matched his career-high, which is also the program’s single-game freshman record, with 17 rebounds in Saturday’s 54-51 win against the Scarlet Knights. Cockburn’s 11 points also gave him his seventh double-double of the season. A feat that pushed him past Efrem Winters for most double-doubles by an Illini freshman in a single season.
“It’s really important I came in and have that success as a big man,” Cockburn said. “That’s required of me as a big man for my teammates and my coaches. It feels refreshing knowing I can go out there and rebound the ball the way I did.”
Cockburn’s rebounds didn’t come easily. Rutgers’ big men — even with sophomore center Myles Johnson sidelined with foul trouble — played a physical style.
“That’s every game in the Big Ten,” Cockburn said. “They have physical big men that challenge you every second. The thing with me is I just have to box out and make sure I’m hitting a body at all times.
“You definitely see how important it is to play defense and rebound the ball and don’t give them second chances. Second chances gives them buckets, and you can’t have that.”
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Saturday was the first game in the new year Illinois was able to avoid early foul trouble for either Cockburn or Giorgi Bezhanishvili. That misfortune instead fell to Rutgers, with Johnson playing a season low with 13 minutes.
Johnson committed his first foul just more than 2 minutes into Saturday’s game and went to the bench immediately. He lasted just more than 1 minute when he checked back in, picking up his second foul with 9:47 to go before halftime. His third came 56 seconds into the second half.
“He’s one of the best big guys in the league,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said of Johnson. The 6-11 native of Long Beach, Calif., is averaging 9.7 points and 8.8 rebounds, but had just four points and two rebounds against the Illini.
“When he’s on the bench, it’s not going to be a good thing for us,” Pikiell continued. “He’s got to do a better job. We need him on the floor — especially against the biggest frontcourt in the league.”
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Ayo Dosunmu made 7 of 8 free throws as part of his 18-point game against Rutgers. That included six straight in the final 50 seconds to help the Illini hold on for the win.
“I’m just thinking about my same routine I do every day,” Dosunmu said was his approach at the line in the final minute. “That makes it very easy for you when you get down the stretch looking to close a game out. It’s just going on your preparation. When I shoot my free throws in practice, I shoot the same way for moments like that.”
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No Illini had more success against Rutgers last season than Bezhanishvili. The 6-9 forward scored a career-high 35 points on 14-of-18 shooting and broke Deon Thomas’ single-game freshman scoring record in the process. The emphasis, of course, is that happened last year.
Bezhanishvili struggled Saturday against the Scarlet Knights, going 3 of 13 from the field and finishing with eight points and five rebounds. He forced some early looks for tough shots. Missed a few open opportunities, too.
“It was just one of those nights, and it was that way for kind of everybody,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said, referencing his team’s 28.6 percent shooting in comparison to Bezhanishvili’s 23.7 percent. “We tried to establish him. We liked the matchup we had, and yet give Rutgers a lot of credit. They were physical and made things tough on him. ... I think the fact he had a career high against them last time maybe had them amped a little bit to guard him a little bit. It’s never as easy as it is the last time.”
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Rutgers’ bench outscored Illinois’ reserves 21-13. Most of the Scarlet Knights’ production came from redshirt junior guard Jacob Young’s 16-point effort. Still, Underwood liked what he got from his bench. The bench, of course, essentially being just senior guard Andres Feliz, redshirt senior forward Kipper Nichols and sophomore guard Alan Griffin.
“Andres was not real sharp in the first half, but Dre was incredible in the second,” Underwood said. “Kipper gave us five rebounds in the first half, which were huge because we got outrebounded in the first half. Alan gave us eight rebounds and had a very atypical shooting night for him, but the one he hit was huge.”
Feliz led Illinois in bench points with eight. All of them came in the second half after he missed all four shots he took in the 9 minutes, 44 seconds he played in the first half.
“Andres is a veteran player,” Cockburn said. “He’s been in that situation before where his shots didn’t go in. He makes good choices. He has a dog in him where whenever things get tough, he keeps fighting.
“I feel like he’s a really tough player. He wants to win. He wants what’s best for the team. He’s willing to make sacrifices when the ball’s not going in to come back and play defense and try to step it up for our team.”
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Nichols drew an important defensive assignment for the second straight game. Underwood switched the 6-6 forward onto Kobe King on Wednesday at Wisconsin after the Badgers’ leading scorer that game had success posting up Illinois’ guards.
Nichols drew Rutgers guard Ron Harper Jr., who was coming off a 22-point game in the Scarlet Knights’ win against Penn State earlier in the week, in the 13-plus minutes he played Saturday.
Harper finished with nine points on 3-of-9 shooting against Nichols and the Illini.
“He changed the dynamic of the Wisconsin game with Kobe King,” Underwood said. “He didn’t back down. What people won’t realize is the situations they put Harper in, Kipper never missed a scouting report coverage. He forced him where he needed to force him and took away his strength.
“There’s tremendous maturity and growth that goes with that. A lot of times you’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s just out there guarding his guy.’ He’s doing it the right way. He’s guarding him the way we talked about for two days. That’s the maturity of a fifth-year senior.”
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Feliz, Nichols and Griffin were once again about it when it came to bench minutes. Sophomore guard Tevian Jones played 34 seconds in the first half before suffering an injury.
“I don’t know anything about Tev other than he rolled his ankle,” Underwood said. “I’ll talk to our training staff after.”
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The first Illinois-Rutgers showdown of the season turned out exactly how both coaches thought it might. Underwood compared it to a rock fight or an MMA bout.
“Rutgers is one of the best teams in the country,” the Illinois coach said. “All you’ve got to do is watch what they’ve done to Seton Hall and how they handled Wisconsin at home. The job Steve has done is unbelievable in terms of establishing a culture that’s built on toughness and physicality. Those guys are good. That’s a very, very good basketball team.”
Pikiell shared a similar sentiment.
“Two evenly matched teams,” he said. “They’re really good defensively, and I think we’re pretty good defensively, too. They’re a really good rebounding team, and I think we’re a good rebounding team. It was just one of those kinds of games. There weren’t a lot of opportunities to get up and down the court.”