CHAMPAIGN — The timeout video of Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Kofi Cockburn playing a game of overrated/underrated was about the only highlight of the first half of Monday night’s nonconference game with Hawaii.
In case you were wondering, both Chick Fil-A and Spongebob Squarepants are underrated. Netflix is too hyped. At least according to the Illinois big men.
The basketball in the first half was a little harder to watch. The Illini were struggling to get shots to fall. Turnover trouble struck again.
Defense at least kept them in the game, forcing Hawaii into many of the same issues — especially the missing shots part.
Normally a good three-point shooting team, the Rainbow Warriors were off early and wound up shooting 14 percent from three-point range for the game.
Cockburn and Bezhanishvili upped their level of play in the second half. They continued to rebound, but started finishing stronger at the rim. They were the closers as Illinois pulled away for a 66-53 victory against the Rainbow Warriors in front of an announced State Farm Center crowd of 11,589.
“We got the ball to where we wanted,” said junior guard Trent Frazier, who finished with 13 points for the Illini. “We got it down there to Kofi, (Kipper Nichols) and Giorgi right in front of the rim. We did better the second half.”
Cockburn finished with his third double-double in four games, putting up 15 points and 14 rebounds.
Bezhanishvili came up a rebound shy of a double-double with 10 points — a late three-pointer got him there points-wise — and nine rebounds. Cockburn’s strong finish was key for Illinois (3-1). The 7-foot freshman center was just 1 of 7 from the field in the first 20 minutes against Hawaii (3-2).
“I thought we necessarily didn’t help him in the first half,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “We got him looks, but they were quick. We hadn’t made the defense move, and I think the one thing with Kofi, the game is still a little fast for him. You see him kind of rush things every now and then. He’s got to realize he’s quite big and he’s large and just slow down and grab the ball and he can move people.
“The second half, to his credit, we ran better offense. We got him a little deeper in the post. He made a couple nice moves with the bounce. It was a combination of his patience, his confidence and us running much better offense.”
Bezhanishvili helped facilitate Cockburn’s strong finish.
The high-low game between the two is something the Illinois coaches have faith in running this season. The results through four games have been mixed, but it fell on the plus side of the ledger Monday night against Hawaii.
The relationship Cockburn and Bezhanishvili have built off the court doesn’t hurt.
Most of Bezhanishvili’s fist pumps Monday night came after big plays from Cockburn. He’s the 7-footer’s biggest fan — and personal hype man, to boot.
“What me and Giorgi have is really special,” Cockburn said. “I’m talking about off the basketball court. We have a really good relationship, and he’s always there for me. He tries to pick me up and keep me on the right path. I feel like in the game he always looks out for me.
“That’s the kind of connection where he gets the ball, and I know he’s going to try and pass it to me. I have to get really good post-ups so he doesn’t get a turnover. I think it just works.”
Cockburn made a point of shouting out all his teammates after Monday’s game.
Their support at halftime was a difference-maker in rejuvenating him after his slow start.
“I just love my guys,” he said. “I went to the locker room and kind of had my head down, and they came and picked me up. Motivated me and told me what to do. They told me to slow down. They’re always there for me, and I appreciate them. I came out and did what they told me, and things got better.”
Cockburn’s emergence has meant more adjustments for Bezhanishvili than any other Illinois starter.
He feasted on post touches as a freshman. Cockburn occupying the low post has the 6-9 sophomore playing more in the high post and on the perimeter.
“We’ve given him a green light to shoot that three,” Underwood said of Bezhanishvili’s late make that was part of a 10-point run just by the Illini big men. “He shot a million of them this summer, and he’s shooting at a very, very high clip right now.
“Most importantly, he’s using that shot fake to make great passes. It’s what they gave us. We had them in foul trouble, we were running really good offense late and putting a lot of pressure on the front of the rim with those guys.”
Getting Bezhanishvili some post touches early also made a difference.
That’s where he’s at his best.
His comfort level and confidence were evident after he finished a couple in the first half against the Rainbow Warriors.
“That’s been one of the things we’ve worked really hard on in the last week is making sure we get him opportunities and create those looks,” Underwood said. “I thought he rushed a couple, but, yeah, we’ve got to get him the ball on the block. We all know he’s going to make 60 percent of those.”