Kofi Cockburn Illinois Penn State

Illinois sophomore center Kofi Cockburn goes up for a dunk during Wednesday's game at Penn State. The Illini won 98-81.

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What happened

How Wednesday’s game started was concerning. Seriously. But Illinois managed to get enough stops to claw back into the game in the first half and take control in the second. There were still some defensive question marks, but a potent Illini offense carried the day — again.

What it means

The back-and-forth theme of this Illinois season continues. Now all three losses have been followed by a win. Wednesday’s didn’t have quite the same dominant quality as the victories against Duke and Minnesota did, but a Big Ten road win is a Big Ten road win.

What’s next

Illinois isn’t part of the Big Ten’s Christmas Day slate, but the Illini will kick off post-holiday hoops with a Saturday showdown with Indiana. At home, no less, which is a change of pace compared to the rest of this month that featured twice the true road games as any other Big Ten team.

What was said

“We told our guys in preparation for Penn State there was a lot of swings in their games. I didn’t know if they were ever going to miss to start. … We just had to get established. The first 13 minutes were a struggle defensively, and then the last seven were really good.” — Illinois coach Brad Underwood on Wednesday’s first half


Grades

Player of the game

Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu

Did you know Dosunmu was a preseason All-American? If you didn’t, the Illini junior served up another reminder Wednesday night in State College, Pa. Dosunmu dropped 30 points in the win against Penn State to go with six rebounds, five assists and two steals and provided the offensive spark in the second half that let the Illini pull away for a rather important bounce back win on the road.

Backcourt

Illinois: A

Penn State: A

Dosunmu’s do-it-all game was only the tip of the iceberg and not the only one of its kind. Andre Curbelo chipped in 15 points and eight assists off the bench. The production from the rest of the Illini guards wasn’t as stat sheet stuffing, but no less important. It was needed, to, with Penn State getting 21 points apiece from Myreon Jones and Izaiah Brockington.

Frontcourt

Illinois: A

Penn State: D

The paint belonged to Kofi Cockburn, who shot 84.6 percent and scored 23 points. It just took Cockburn a little time to get going on the glass. Enter Jacob Grandison, who came off the bench and stayed on the court because he rebounded and made hustle plays. Conversely, Penn State’s bigs were an absolutely non-factor.

Bench

Illinois: A

Penn State: A

Grandison was a revelation off the bench. The Holy Cross transfer, now eligible after sitting out in 2019-20, hadn’t played double-digit minutes since the first two games of the season and then gave 15 good ones at Penn State. Add in Curbelo and Giorgi Bezhanishvili’s efforts, and the Illini had one of their best bench efforts of the season. The Nittany Lions’ bench wasn’t bad either behind Brockington and Sam Sessoms.

Overall

Illinois: A

Penn State: C+

The Illini proved Wednesday night they have the firepower to overcome getting blitzed before the first media timeout and falling behind by double figures. Not facing that early deficit, of course, would be preferable, but the victory at Penn State showed another way to win if necessary. Having Dosunmu as an offensive safety net doesn't hurt either.

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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