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Local personalities weigh in on the key events that made the 2020-21 Illini such a memorable team:

Kofi Cockburn, Jacob Grandison defending

Michigan guard Mike Smith dribbles against Illinois center Kofi Cockburn, left, and forward Jacob Grandison during Tuesday night’s 76-53 victory by the fourth-ranked Illini against the second-ranked Wolverines at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. Cockburn finished with 12 points and seven rebounds while Grandison added three points and six rebounds.

Doug Altenberger | Fighting Illini Sports Network

“Taking a deep breath after one of the most accomplished seasons in Illinois history. The defining game to a great season was the win at Michigan on the road against the No. 2 ranked team in the country. Our guys stepped up without Ayo Dosunmu, one of the best players in the country, and dominated the Wolverines. We sent a message on national TV: The Fighting Illini are for real! The rest is history — Big Ten tournament champs and No. 1 seed in the big dance. As Giorgi Bezhanishvili said, it was an amazing season, and because of the win over the Wolverines, with two young freshmen, the future is bright.”

MBB vs Illinois

Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu chases down a loose ball during Friday night’s game against Nebraska at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Neb. Dosunmu scored 31 points in the Illini’s 77-72 overtime victory.

Bob Asmussen | The News-Gazette sports columnist

“Feb. 12: Illinois 77, Nebraska 72, OT. Illinois trailed 64-58 with just three minutes left to play against the heavy-underdog Cornhuskers. Had Illinois lost, it would have been by far the biggest blemish on its resume and likely cost it a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Ayo Dosunmu wouldn’t allow it to happen, scoring 15 consecutive points during a game-deciding stretch. The All-American was dominant, scoring 31 points. The victory was part of a 14-1 stretch for Brad Underwood’s team.”

B1G rutgers

The team celebrates as they leave the court in following the buzzer in the second half of a quarterfinal matchup of the Big Ten basketball tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Friday, March 12, 2021.

Paul Barrett | Executive VP and Publisher, Champaign Multi Media Group

“My timing could not have been better, moving here from upstate New York to be associated with the acquisition of The News-Gazette and our Radio Group and being in Champaign during this magical season. The 2020-2021 Illini basketball team brought so much fun and excitement to our community during a time when the pandemic was bearing down on all of us. This team must be remembered not only for the tremendous success on the court, but for the time in our lives that they were able to make it happen. They gave us the true definition of a team. The infectious enthusiasm, the smiles and the sacrifices indicated they were obviously playing for each other as well as for the fans. It was a fabulous season — one for the books.”

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Scott Beatty | WDWS 1400-AM, pregame and postgame radio host

“Trent Frazier holding up a hand-written sign that said ‘Big Ten Champs.’ That moment after beating Ohio State on March 6 embodied when this team was as its best — whenever they felt slighted or overlooked. The list that fueled them was plenty: Michigan choosing not to play them as scheduled; a disproportionate number of road games at the end of the season; Kofi Cockburn not getting the benefit of officials’ whistles; Ayo Dosunmu’s broken nose and concussion at the hands (elbow) of Michigan State. The Illini excelled when it had a chip on its shoulder. Too bad Sister Jean didn’t provide some bulletin board material.”

Kofi Cockburn celebrates Michigan

Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn (21) celebrates a second-half basket against Michigan at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

Bret Beherns | WCIA

“The easy answer is the Ohio State win in the Big Ten tournament title game, and while that will definitely go down as THE defining moment, for me it’s about the journey to get to that point. I’m not sure they win three games in three days if it’s not for the blowout victory at Michigan 12 days earlier. That’s why the win against the Wolverines is one of the standout moments for me this season. The Illini didn’t just win in Ann Arbor — they dominated against the No. 2 team in the country, on the biggest stage yet to that point. I was fortunate enough to be at Crisler Center that night to see it in person and will forever remember the historic night Illinois landed its highest ranked road win in program history. I try not to lose sight that it’s more than 100 years of Illinois basketball, and the team had never beat a team of that caliber on their home court. Filming the team walking off the court that night, they possessed the confidence and talent to beat anybody in the country.”

B1G second over

Young Illinois fans cheer on their favorite team from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis during the Big Ten tournament.

Ed Bond | Fighting Illini Sports Network

“For me, the defining moment of the Illini basketball season was the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis. After months of doing broadcasts in a studio at Bielfeldt Athletic Administration Building or an empty State Farm Center, it was very exciting to be back in the arena at Lucas Oil Stadium with real live Illini fans having a good time cheering for the team. I learned a lot this past season about how to create what sounded like a basketball game in a full arena. Using computers, delay boxes and televisions, a lot can be accomplished, but there is nothing like the real thing. Thanks to the Illini fans who made the journey to Indianapolis. Having you there made all the difference. Thanks to the University of Illinois for having a plan to keep the team healthy and compete in every game. Here is hoping the continued rollout of the vaccine and good health will lead to the full reopening for everyone next season.”

Adam Miller Duke

Illinois freshman guard Adam Miller celebrates after making a three-pointer during the first half of Tuesday night’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge against No. 10 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. Miller had nine points as the No. 6 Illini won 83-68.

Matt Daniels | The News-Gazette sports editor

“On a cold Tuesday night in early December, when Duke was still thought of as Duke, the impressive showing by Brad Underwood’s team can’t be diminished. Sure, the Blue Devils floundered the rest of the season and likely would have missed out on an NCAA tournament berth even if COVID-19 hadn’t ended their ACC tournament stay. And yes, Cameron Indoor Stadium was void of fans. Still, the Illini’s thorough domination during an 83-68 win in this Top-10 matchup thrust the national spotlight back on Champaign. Where it stayed for the next three months, and rightfully so. All the accolades and acclaim the program eventually achieved this season might have been possible even if Illinois lost at Duke. But this was one signature nonconference win that Illinois needed to let everyone else in the country know they were for real.”

B1G after

Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier and Kofi Cockburn tip off the NCAA tournament Friday in Indianapolis.

Nico Haeflinger | FOX Illinois/WICS

“While the tournament run ended far too quickly, Illini fans enjoyed a season to remember. The year was highlighted by a pair of All-Americans in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. Players who were dominant forces one year ago, and saw their games improve exponentially. While the tournament run ended far too quickly, my defining moment of the season shifts towards the future, as the duo of Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller likely move into bigger roles. Both of those players showed flashes of brilliance in their freshman campaigns. Highlighted by performances while Dosunmu was out of the lineup. Miller scored his Big Ten best 18 points in a win over Nebraska, and Curbelo averaged 14.7 points and 8.3 rebounds while continuing to dish out highlight reel assists. The duo scored a combined 24.7 points per game with Dosunmu out. Brad Underwood’s staff has shown the ability to help players take the next step in their games. If Curbelo, Miller and even Coleman Hawkins can make jumps similar to those we saw from the upperclassmen, the Illini should be right back to contending for another Big Ten championship, and hopefully more, next season.”

UIpurdue

Illinois guard Da’Monte Williams (20) is introduced and behind him is Illinois guard Andre Curbelo (5) in their NCAA basketball game at the State Farm Center in Champaign on Saturday, January 2, 2021.

Gabby Hajduk | The Daily Illini

“My defining point comes down to a very specific moment in Illinois’ win over Wisconsin at home on Feb. 6. Andre Curbelo played a god awful stretch of possessions, Brad Underwood yanked him out and tore into him during the timeout before coaching him up and giving him a pat on the shoulder. Not only did we see first hand Underwood’s wonderful, yet terrifying coaching style, but it was a turning point for Curbelo. Prior to that moment he was playing all right, averaging about five points per game. The Wisconsin game started a few-game slump for the freshman before he exploded into the player Underwood had raved about since August. He started scoring in the double digits consistently, flirting with triple-doubles and confidently but calmly commanding the floor. And anyone who watched the Illini this year knows the offense was smoother and more efficient with Curbelo on the floor. Curbelo pushed Illinois through the end of the regular season without Ayo Dosunmu, but more importantly he is the future, or more like the present. I think Curbelo needed that horrid Wisconsin game as a gut check before proving to the nation he’s not going to let Illini basketball die anytime soon.”

B1G rutgers

Ayo Dosumnu leads the Illini into the NCAA tournament today at 12:15 p.m. against Drexel.

Colin Likas | The News-Gazette sports writer

“It’d be easy for me to pick the Big Ten tournament championship win over Ohio State as the Illini’s defining moment, especially considering I was physically present. But I’m instead going to go with Ayo Dosunmu’s return from his facial injury and everything surrounding that moment. The mask reveal on social media. Fans’ reaction to Dosunmu in the wake of his injury. The way Dosunmu’s teammates rallied to play some of their best basketball while he was out. And then Ayo actually coming back and leading the team to a crucial victory versus Ohio State. All of this felt like the true start of a really special postseason run for Illinois. It’s a shame it wound up ending so quickly.”

Kofi Cockburn

Illinois center Kofi Cockburn spoke with the media on Zoom on Thursday, discussing the Black Lives Matter movement, his return for his sophomore season and the growth in his game this summer.

Mike Pearson | Illini historian, author of Illini Legends, Lists & Lore

“It’s impossible for me to choose just one defining moment that describes the 2020-21 Illini basketball season. How do you narrow down just one of Kofi’s plethora of earth-rattling dunks … or choose only one of Ayo’s graceful-yet-scintillating drives to the basket … or select just one of ‘Belo’s Rembrandt-like passes? And how do you possibly pick just one of Trent, Adam and Da’Monte’s long-range, game-clinching bombs? For me, a former Illini publicist, the one word that worked its way to the front of the line to describe ’20-21 was “Zoom.” It was those pandemic-induced, Hollywood-Squares-like, online conversations between quarantined Illini players and coaches, and the legion of reporters who willingly accepted that Zooms were their only option to create consumer content. Not only did we get to see how media members’ spare bedrooms were furnished, we also got to hear Brad Underwood’s artful answers to sometimes inane questions. Equally as impressive were the responses from Illinois’ student-athletes. We can now easily surmise that Ayo won’t have problems transitioning from amateur interviews to more challenging NBA one-on-ones. Nor can we label Giorgi and Kofi’s fun-loving retorts following the Big Ten tournament title game against Ohio State as anything less than “amazing.” However, reporters will agree that just one year of Zoom is more than plenty. Like all of us, they yearn for those good old days of one-on-one, mask-less chats.”

B1G after

Illinois celebrates following their overtime win against Ohio State in the championship game of the Big Ten basketball tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Sunday, March 14, 2021.

Derek Piper | Illini Inquirer

“A premature exit in the Big Dance left an unfortunate lasting impression, but the Big Ten tournament title game was a defining moment that we won’t soon forget. Amidst the controversy that surrounded the crowning of the regular season champion, the Illini were hell-bent on proving that no other Big Ten team was better at its peak. They put that on display in front of a fan base that had waited so long to see their beloved team up close. I was in awe seeing the line of giddy fans stretching through the parking lot waiting to get in the gate. On the court, they were treated to a high-level game with so many different players stepping up throughout. This was a team with two unforgettable All-Americans, but it was much more than just a two-man show. I’ll remember the chants of ‘Giorgi!’ when the lovable big man stepped up with a huge contribution. And the brilliance of Andre Curbelo that inspires hope for the future with the ball in his hands. It was a fitting moment of elation for a program that has come so far, and for a team that overcame so much through an unprecedented season.”

B1G after

Ayo Dosunmu — in the process of cutting down the nets after the Illini won the Big Ten tournament on March 14 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis — checks out the feed of Selection Sunday as Illinois is tabbed as a No. 1 seed for NCAA tournament.

Scott Richey | The News-Gazette beat writer

“It’s not a coincidence how I chose to frame Illinois’ Big Ten tournament championship win against Ohio State. The imagery was just too perfect. Ayo Dosunmu pausing at the top of the ladder, waiting to cut his piece of net, while his eyes were glued to the videoboard at the other side of Lucas Oil Stadium. The Illini seeing their name pop as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament as they celebrated a different title in Indianapolis was the defining moment of the season in one clear way. Illinois basketball was well and truly back after a near decade of true irrelevancy on the national stage. That it was Dosunmu at the top of the ladder, the last of the Illinois players to climb and snip his piece of history, was only fitting. The whole moment was basically the Chicago native following through on the vision for the program he laid out not quite 31/2 years ago when he committed. Did the season end the way the Illini wanted to? Obviously not, but they’re not a college basketball afterthought anymore.”

uibkbubben

Illinois forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili gets a hug from a fan as the team returns to Ubben Basketball Complex in Champaign on March 21 after their second-round loss in the NCAA tournament against Loyola Chicago.

Robin Scholz | The News-Gazette photo editor

“I really enjoyed photographing the Illini men’s basketball team this year. These young men went through a lot for this season to occur. They spent months sequestered away from family and friends in an attempt to stay healthy, and they were successful. When other teams were cancelling games due to COVID-19, they were ready to play any game that came along. This team has a lot of personality and was fun to watch, and it is too bad that fans could not be there in person to fill up State Farm Center with a lot of noise.”

UIpurdue

Illinois bench in the second half of their NCAA basketball game at the State Farm Center in Champaign on Saturday, January 2, 2021.

Tim Sinclair | Illinois PA announcer

“For me, the 2020-2021 Fighting Illini can be summed up in two words: sacrifice and joy. These guys gave up so much in order to compete this season. They lost the better part of a year with family and friends. They missed hours of sleep thanks to daily, early-morning COVID testing. And several even forfeited a spot in the NBA draft. Yet despite it all, these “everyday guys” exhibited infectious joy. Maybe it was partially a result of all the rim-rattling dunks and dagger jumpshots, but I can’t remember seeing a team smile, laugh, hug and cheer quite like this one did. And while there were no fans in the stands to see it, you didn’t need to be. The joy they played with was clearly evident right through the television screen.”

B1G after

Brad Underwood and Illinois continued their preparation Monday in Indianapolis ahead of Friday’s NCAA tournament first-round game against Drexel, but the fourth-year coach cherished winning a Big Ten tournament title on Sunday night by celebrating with, from left, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Trent Frazier, Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn.

Brad Sturdy | Orange and Blue News

“There were numerous accomplishments for the Illini this season, but the moment that stood out was seeing this group celebrate after winning the Big Ten tournament title. It was amazing. They had sacrificed so much to play this season, essentially giving up the social activity that defines life as a college student just to play the game that they love. For that moment, it was all worth it. They had been “bubbled” since August and hadn’t seen family and friends, and those of us that had seen what they had to endure — from the 7 a.m. daily testing to the isolation — knew the sacrifices they made. They battled through the pandemic and did something that would leave a lasting legacy on the Illinois program. But perhaps more importantly, they got to let their guard down and just enjoy the fruits of their labor for just a few minutes, and feel a sense of satisfaction and normalcy. In this season of chaos, a bit of normalcy was great to see.”

ui neb

Athletic Director Josh Whitman,Illinois guard Da’Monte Williams (20) and Illinois head coach Brad Underwood during Senior Night before a NCAA basketball game vs. Nebraska at State Farm Center in Champaign on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.

Deon Thomas | Fighting Illini Sports Network

“This was a season filled with defining moments. You must first start at the beginning. The return of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn was the linchpin that led to the success of this season. When you have leadership, you have direction. Ayo, Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams were those leaders steering the ship. They took the freshmen and the rest of the team showed them the way of the everyday guy. Through hard work and determination, this team got off to a great start. The second moment was the loss to Baylor. This team played their hearts out for 37 minutes. This gave them the understanding that they were good enough to play with anyone in the country. I believe the third moment came after two losses in a row, and the insertion of Jacob Grandson into the starting line up. Lastly, the Dosunmu injury. That injury presented the freshmen with the opportunity to display all they’ve learned. Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo did more than give Illini Nation something to look forward to. These defining moments proved this team is for real and that Brad Underwood has the ship pointed in the right direction and headed to another Big Ten title.”

NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament - First Round

The top-seeded Illini let their fans know their appreciation following Friday’s NCAA tournament first-round win against Drexel at Indiana Farmers Coliseum. On Sunday, Illinois aims to reach its first Sweet 16 in 16 years when the Illini tip off against in-state foe Loyola Chicago at 11:10 a.m. at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Joe Vozzelli Jr. | The News-Gazette sports copy editor

“The wait was longer than expected after the cancellation of last year’s NCAA tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Brad Underwood’s Illini sure made a triumphant return to March Madness on March 19, 2021. As a No. 1 seed. With a dominant performance. Ayo Dosunmu put on a show. Kofi Cockburn threw down some thunderous dunks. And the Illini won by 29 points in a first-round matchup against Drexel. What would transpire less than 48 hours later against Loyola Chicago was a huge letdown, but at least Illini fans got a chance to see one last emphatic effort from a special Illinois team in person, with fans allowed inside Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis.”

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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