It wasn't easy, but the Illinois Fighting Illini captured the Big Ten Conference championship on Sunday afternoon with an 91-88 overtime win over the Ohio State Buckeyes in Indianapolis.
Six Illini players reached double-figures in scoring, with Kofi Cockburn, Andre Curbelo and Ayo Dosunmu each scoring 16 points to clinch the title, and a number one seed in the NCAA tournament, for the Illini.
Dosunmu was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player for his efforts.
With Cockburn in foul trouble early in the second half, Giorgi Bezhanishvili came alive for the Illini, scoring 10 second-half points and helping the squad to their first Big Ten championship in 16 years.
The conference championship is the first for Illinois since 2005, when they lost one regular season game and made it all the way to the national title game before falling to North Carolina.
The Illini got off to a red-hot start in the game, quickly building up a 16-point lead at the halfway mark of the first half as Da’Monte Williams knocked down back-to-back three pointers to put Illinois ahead by a score of 25-9.
Illinois held their biggest lead of the half with 9:46 to go as Dosunmu knocked down a jumper to make it 27-10, but the Buckeyes began to slowly crawl their way back from there, finishing the half on a 19-9 run to trim the Illini lead to five points at the break.
The Buckeyes continued their onslaught to start the second half, cutting Illinois’ lead to two points as Justice Sueing made a pair of free throws to make it a 47-45 game. Bezhanishvili took over the game in Cockburn’s absence, scoring eight straight points for the Illini as the squad built their lead back up to 11 points with 12 minutes to go.
Once again, the Buckeyes refused to wilt, cutting back into the Illinois lead behind some strong offensive play from Sueing and Duane Washington Jr. CJ Walker then made back-to-back layups, and his free throw with eight minutes to go in the game made it a one-point game.
The two sides traded baskets for several minutes, with Washington dropping a three pointer and Walker making a lay-up to give Ohio State their first lead of the day with under six minutes to go in the contest.
Andre Curbelo answered quickly with a lay-up to knot things up at 67-67, and on the next trip down the floor Trent Frazier made a lay-up of his own to put Illinois in front with four minutes remaining. Frazier then bombed in a three-pointer to give the Illini a five-point lead, capping off a quick 7-0 spurt by the second-seeded squad.
After a lay-up by Washington, Dosunmu responded with a three-pointer at the other end, bringing the Illinois lead back up to six.
EJ Liddell and the Buckeyes refused to go away once again, with Liddell throwing down a dunk with 59 seconds remaining in the game to make it 75-74.
Williams, who had come up clutch with several three-pointers in the game, did it again for the Illini with less than 40 seconds remaining, making a one-handed shot in the lane to put Illinois in front 77-74 in crunch time.
With 23.6 seconds to go, Sueing missed a lay-up, but he collected his own rebound and put the ball back in, drawing a foul in the process. Sueing then made the free throw to tie the game at 77-77.
Dosunmu held the ball for a last-second shot, but his deep three-pointer didn't find the mark, and a Cockburn put-back was blocked at the horn to send the game to overtime, only the second time the title game has gone to the extra stanza in its history.
The Buckeyes managed to ease ahead of Illinois 81-80 on a lay-up by Washington, as he set a new career high in points. Cockburn was fouled at the other end with 1:39 to go, making both free throws to move Illinois back out in front.
After an Ohio State turnover, Curbelo knocked down a pull-up jumper to give Illinois a three-point lead with 47.2 seconds remaining in the overtime frame.
After another turnover by the Buckeyes, Curbelo made a pair of free throws to extend the Illinois lead to five, and at the other end of the floor Ohio State missed a three-pointer and fouled Cockburn, all but sealing the victory for Illinois.
Illinois will learn their first round opponent in the tournament during the NCAA tournament selection show on Sunday evening.