CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood wouldn’t change much of anything about his team’s penultimate possession of Monday night’s game against Miami.
Illinois got the ball in Ayo Dosunmu’s hands. The sophomore guard attacked the basket.
What Underwood would change was the final result of the play. He would have liked to have seen Dosunmu get off the shot — put the ball on the rim at minimum. Instead, Miami guard Chris Lykes drew what turned out to be the game-winning charge.
“You put the ball in one of your best players’ hands and try to get it to the rim and/or make a play,” Underwood said. “Lykes, as (good) he was on the offensive end, made the defensive play. Give the young man credit. He ran a little, simple up screen with our big guy, and he was there to support it.”
That play by Lykes, though, made Miami coach Jim Larranaga a bit nervous.
“He actually drew what he was hoping would be called a charge that ended up being his fourth foul,” said Larranaga, who won his 650th career game in the Hurricanes’ 81-79 victory. “It was kind of a dangerous play, but with 21 / 2 seconds to go, he stepped up and made a huge defensive play for us.”
Illinois got the ball for that possession with about 16 seconds to play. Underwood also didn’t have a timeout to spend after blitzing through several in the first half. Not that he necessarily would have used it anyway.
“It’s not the first time in my career I’ve used all the timeouts in the first half,” Underwood said. “You’re going to do what you have to do to try to stem the tide and give yourself a chance. We know what to run the last 10 seconds. I’m not a guy that wants to call a timeout and face a changing defense. We’ve had our share of making those. Give Lykes a lot of credit.”
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Until Illinois put together its second-half rally, about the only thing going right offensively for the Illini was Kofi Cockburn. The 7-foot, 285-pound freshman center was also key in the Illini’s comeback, as he finished with a team-high 23 points, made all eight of his shots from the field and finished 7 of 8 from the free throw line.
“Huge,” sophomore forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili said. “He is a freshman and doesn’t have a lot of experience, but obviously he came up real huge for us and made really, really big plays. He’s just dominant. Really good game for him, and I’m really happy for him.”
Cockburn got it done despite Miami scheming its defense almost entirely to stop him. It worked.
A little, at least.
“Kofi is so big, so strong that it’s very, very hard to guard him one-on-one and not end up with him scoring or you fouling him, which we did a number of times,” Larranaga said. “We decided before the game that there would be times we’d double-team him — what we would call a 4-5 trap. That was effective.”
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The Illinois players that could make it home last Thursday for Thanksgiving did so. Several Illini — Cockburn, Bezhanishvili, Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, Andres Feliz, Trent Frazier, Jacob Grandison and Tevian Jones — joined the Underwood family and other staff members and their families to celebrate the holiday together.
“Definitely enjoyed Thanksgiving,” Bezhanishvili said. “That’s a huge thing in the United States. We don’t have it back home, but I still enjoy it. Everybody gets together and has dinner together and just be thankful for things that we have and people that we know.
“Then we got in the gym and put work in to prepare for Miami. Clean some things up we didn’t do well in our past games.”
Bezhanishvili has developed his own Thanksgiving meal favorites in his time in the United States.
“Turkey,” the Georgian native said with authority. “I don’t know if everybody (does), but I think most people cook turkey. I tasted it and liked it. I like turkey in general. It was pretty good.”
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Post-Thanksgiving meant getting back in the gym. No classes meant the Illini could turn their focus solely to basketball and did so with some two-a-day practices starting Friday and running through their prep for Monday night’s game against Miami.
“I think every coach enjoys those little breaks when it’s very singular — it’s basketball,” Underwood said. “The one thing it allows you to do is get in the gym and get a lot of shots. We tried to do something very simple and that was have every single player get better in one area and really focus on that one area. Not ask them to do three or four or 10 things, but let’s clean up one area.
“We did spend a lot of time shooting the basketball. Sometimes when you’re in game preparation mode, you don’t get up enough shots.”
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Bezhanishvili took getting more shots to heart. He spent about 15 minutes after Sunday’s practice putting in more work on his three-point shot with assistant coach Orlando Antigua. Bezhanishvili entered Monday’s game shooting 62.5 percent from three-point range. Limited attempts so far, but he’s making them a year after he shot 16.7 percent from beyond the arc.
“I worked on it really, really a lot during the summer and continue to work right now,” Bezhanishvili said. “I’m feeling pretty confident. I always try and take the right shot and not take bad shots. If it goes in, it goes in.”
Underwood is confident in Bezhanishvili behind the three-point line, too. Mostly because he knows the level of effort the sophomore forward is putting in to improve his shot.
“The one thing I like with Giorgi is his understanding,” Underwood said. “He’s probably turned down a handful of them that he could have taken — or maybe would have taken in the past — to deliver the ball to Kofi, who’s closer to the rim and had a better angle.
“Do I think he’s going to make it? Yeah. Do I want him to shoot it? He’s taken a million of them. He’s practiced. We’ll see that percentage be better because he has good touch. His thumb’s not sprained as it was last year.”
Part of Bezhanishvili getting up extra three-pointers following Sunday’s practice was to do so when he was already tired.
“I always try to work through the fatigue,” he said. “When you’re tired, you’ve still got to be able to play and you’ve still got to be able to shoot.”
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Illinois entered Monday night’s game against Miami averaging just 15.4 fouls per game. That number ranked the Illini 73rd nationally — well ahead of the national average. It’s also a significant improvement from a year ago when they averaged 21.2 fouls per game and finished the season ranked 344th among the 353 total Division I teams.
“That’s horrendous,” Underwood said. “My teams have always been teams that foul a lot. There’s a big difference having rim protection. We’re older, and it’s been a point of emphasis since the end of the season.”
Cockburn’s presence in the paint has been the focal point of Illinois’ rim protection. The freshman center isn’t blocking a lot of shots, but simply being present in the paint serves as a deterrent for Illinois’ opponents and a backup option for the other Illini on the court.
Just ask his teammates.
Frazier said he and his teammates aren’t committing as many silly fouls and the fact it has been such a point of emphasis from the coaches has helped, too. Cockburn’s presence, though, has been equally as important.
“I think the biggest thing is we have rim protection now,” Frazier said. “It’s more help. You don’t have to always reach outside the paint when guys drive by you. We’ve got Giorgi and Kofi down there just rim protecting and blocking shots.”
Bezhanishvili said he could do more to help Cockburn in that regard.
“Personally, I’ve been horrible at rim protection,” he said. “I haven’t taken any charges or blocked many shots. I haven’t done my best and obviously have to improve on that.”
But it’s always nice knowing Cockburn’s there.
“We’re really, really confident,” Bezhanishvili said. “If you get beat, you have somebody to protect the rim. Somebody that’s really, really huge — one of the biggest players in the country. We are all confident that somebody’s got our back. Kofi’s always there. That helps in so many ways.”