Kofi Cockburn returned from a concussion and scored 22 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead No. 24 Illinois to a 59-56 victory over Northwestern on Saturday.
Cockburn was effective, hitting 10 of 17 shots, but his teammates combined for a dismal 12-of-34 shooting clip, allowing the Wildcats to hang around despite going 20 of 56 from the field and 6 of 18 from 3-point range.
Northwestern took its first lead on a 3 from Ty Berry with 14:35 to play. The Wildcats worked their way to a six-point cushion on Elyjah Williams’ three-point play with 8:09 to play, but Illinois (15-5, 8-2 Big Ten) turned to Cockburn down the stretch and he scored 14 points in the second half, going 6 of 9 from the field.
Cockburn tied the game with a short bucket with 2:25 to play. After a stop, he went up for another layup and missed, but Illini guard Da’Monte Williams’ follow dunk gave Illinois a 55-53 lead with 1:34 to play.
The Wildcats made just 4 of their last 11 shots, and Illinois went 4 of 6 at the free throw line to close out the game.
No other Illinois players reached double figures, as Alfonso Plummer went 2 of 6 to finish with nine points.
Pete Nance led Northwestern (9-10, 2-8 Big Ten) with 21 points on 8-of-15 shooting to go along with five rebounds, while Boo Buie added nine points and Berry finished with eight points.
The Wildcats struggled offensively, particularly in the first half, going 6 of 26 (23%) from the floor. The Illini returned the favor though, going 1 of 8 over the last five minutes of the half to take a 24-19 lead into the break.
Illinois: The Illini have now won their last seven meetings with the Wildcats, dating back to an 81-76 win in 2019. Star guard Andre Curbelo missed his second-straight game due to COVID-19 safety protocols, but Cockburn’s return gives Illinois a boost ahead of a marquee matchup against Wisconsin and road games at Indiana and Purdue. The victory keeps Illinois atop the Big Ten standings, with Wisconsin and Michigan State both a half-game behind.
Northwestern: The Wildcats are trending toward the bottom of the Big Ten after dropping their last four games. Northwestern proved it can threaten the league’s frontrunners with a two-point win at Michigan State on Jan. 15, but it hasn’t had enough playmaking beyond Nance and Buie to win consistently. Matchups against Rutgers and last-place Nebraska next week present an opportunity to gain some momentum.
Illinois: Hosts No. 11 Wisconsin on Wednesday.
Northwestern: Hosts Rutgers on Tuesday.