CHAMPAIGN — Kofi Cockburn had zero doubt about what was going to happen with the ball in Ayo Dosunmu’s hands and Illinois men’s basketball trailing Michigan State by one point with six seconds to play Tuesday night at a sold-out State Farm Center.
It was simple faith borne from witnessing Dosunmu repeatedly deliver in the clutch in 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.
Here’s how confident Cockburn was in Dosunmu’s ability as a closer: the Illinois freshman center ran the floor behind the play with Dosunmu streaking up the right sideline to be in position should his teammate need a helping hand up to complete an and-one opportunity to take down the Spartans.
The bitter irony is Dosunmu did need help up off the State Farm Center floor.
Just not for the reason Cockburn, his teammates, the Illinois coaching staff or the suddenly-silenced State Farm Center crowd wanted.
Dosunmu pushed the ball in transition following Xavier Tillman’s putback dunk that had Michigan State leading by one.
Driving the right wing, Dosunmu’s right foot slipped in front of the Illinois bench, his left knee buckled and he turned it over with three seconds on the clock in the Spartans’ 70-69 victory.
The final image of Tuesday night’s game was Dosunmu on the court writhing in pain while he grasped his knee, with 15,544 fans going from fever pitched to concerned silence in an instant.
“Obviously, the outcome of the game is secondary at this point,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “You get a knot in your stomach when you have one of your guys go down. We don’t know anything. We won’t know anything. We’re not going to release anything until we do know something. He’s in the great hands of our medical staff here.”
Dosunmu’s slip, fall and yet-to-be-determined injury was 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.”
Griffith’s injury hurts No. 22 Illinois in how it can prepare for its remaining seven regular season games starting at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Rutgers.
The potential loss of Dosunmu, though, could have further reaching consequences. The 6-foot-5, 195-pound guard is the Illini’s scoring leader and go-to player, a talent who bypassed the potential of getting drafted in the first round of the NBA draft last June to return to Illinois.
“It’s really tough,” Illinois senior guard Andres Feliz said. “Ayo’s one of the best players in the country right now. He’s part of us. We don’t know what his condition is right now. We’ve got to wait on the tests and all the doctors to check him out and tell us if he’s going to be good.”
Dosunmu’s tumble and the fact he had to be helped off the court hit Cockburn pretty hard.
The 7-foot freshman 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. “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.
“Even though I don’t know what happened to him, it really hurts me because 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. I hope he’s good.”
Dosunmu led Illinois (16-8, 8-5 Big Ten) with 17 points and nine rebounds Tuesday against Michigan State (17-8, 9-5).
Most of that production came in the second half, as the Illini rallied after falling behind by 17 points at halftime and 20 on the first possession of the second half on an Aaron Henry three-pointer.
“I hope Ayo’s OK,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I really do. He’s a great kid and a great player. I don’t know. Prayers are out to him.”
Illinois had an off day Wednesday. Underwood called that “refreshing” and “much needed at this point — mentally as well as physically.”
Dosunmu will be evaluated. Then, Illinois will begin its next round of game preparation Thursday before it heads to New Jersey to face the Scarlet Knights (17-7, 8-5), who are 16-0 on their home court this season.
“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 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, but at this point I don’t know if we have to replace him or not,” Underwood said. “It could be a bruise. Who knows?”?”