Illinois center Kofi Cockburn learned some hard lessons dueling with Luka Garza as a freshman.
On Saturday, he stood up to Iowa’s career scoring leader — and won.
Cockburn scored 18 of his 26 points in the first half, fought through foul trouble in the second half and challenged Garza physically while leading No. 3 Illinois past No. 5 Iowa 82-71 on Saturday. The victory sends the Illini to the Big Ten Tournament championship game.
“I thought Kofi was just great,” coach Brad Underwood said. “I thought the job he did in the first half, he was just dominant and not just because he had 18 points but because of his defense.”
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Illinois (22-6) has won six straight, with three coming against top-10 foes. If Illinois wins one more, against No. 9 Ohio State on Sunday, it would claim its first tourney title since 2005.
But it was the matchup between Cockburn and Garza that was one of the prime reasons why Illinois’ boisterous fans made the short trek across the state line to Indianapolis. They made themselves at home, cheering loudly each time Cockburn made a play, while booing the foul calls against Illinois.
And Cockburn made sure Garza worked for everything he got. Garza finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds for Iowa (21-7). The Big Ten Player of the Year went 8 for 21 from the field and dealt with his own foul trouble in the second half.
Cockburn, meanwhile, made 11 of 21 shots.
“It’s tough,” Garza said. “You know he’s a tremendous big man. We’re both being physical with each other. It’s just it’s what I’m going to have to deal with and I’ve been dealing with in the Big Ten for a while now.”
The difference was Cockburn’s supporting cast.
Ayo Dosunmu had 18 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. Freshman guard Andre Curbelo added 12 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three steals.
A 9-0 run midway through the first half gave Illinois a 22-14 lead that it never surrendered. The Illini led 45-37 at the break and then opened the second half on an 8-2 spurt that featured two big baskets from Jacob Grandison.
Iowa couldn’t get closer than five rest of the way.
“I wanted to make him score through me, always putting my body on him,” Cockburn said before turning his attention on some unfinished business. “It’s that Mamba mentality, that Kobe (Bryant) mentality that we’re not through. We’ve got a long way to go.”
Iowa: The Hawkeyes won’t go away quietly in the NCAA Tournament, as Illinois found out Saturday. The Hawkeyes will pose matchup problems for opponents who are unfamiliar with Garza’s size, versatility and supporting cast.
Illinois: The Fighting Illini might be playing their best basketball this season at the perfect time. They’ve already tied a single-season school record with five top-10 wins, and the last three all came on the road or neutral courts. They could celebrate the school record by cutting down the nets Sunday.
Iowa: Jordan Bohannon had 20 points and six assists. Joe Wieskamp finished with 12 points and seven rebounds. ... The Hawkeyes were outrebounded 42-35 and outscored in the paint 52-24. ... Iowa had nine turnovers in the first half and finished with 12.
Illinois: Trent Frazier had nine points and five assists. Da’Monte Williams had nine rebounds. ... The Illini won despite going 3 of 15 on 3s. ... Sunday marks Illinois’ seventh appearance in the championship game.
HE SAID IT
″(Cockburn) is such a handful and we were so worried about Luka getting into foul trouble because we knew we needed Luka in the game,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “That changes things. It would have been nice to have had another big, no question about it.”
Iowa: Will find out its next opponent when the NCAA Tournament brackets are released Sunday.
Illinois: Plays No. 9 Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game.