Illinois Tournament Disappointment: The Illinois Fighting Illini finished the regular season with a seven-game winning streak by beating the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship Game in an overtime thriller. After missing three games due to a concussion and facial injuries, Ayo Dosunmu did his part as he looked like a superhero. With a 19-point performance, the team was able to secure the one seed in the NCAA Tournament with very high expectations to go far and possibly win the whole thing.
The Illini met the sixteen seed Drexel Dragons as the team had no problems against Drexel. Kofi Cockburn led the way with 18 points while shooting 8-11 from the field, and Dosunmu followed with 17 points. The game was over from the first-half as Illinois put up 39 points in both halves in this matchup. Spirits were high as they looked to face the Loyola Ramblers, who were the Cinderella Team in 2018, who made it to the final four that year as the eleventh seed.
What went wrong
Sister Jean was in the crowd as she was a big part of the team’s success in 2018 and this year. Illinois were seen as a clear winner, being a seven-point favorite against Loyola Chicago. However, this is March, and anything could happen as we saw so many upsets in the first round of the Tournament.
Illinois (24-7) earned the top seeding for the first time since the team’s Final Four in the year 2005. However, the team did not play like they played all year. In the first half alone, the team fell behind by 14 points and did not put up much of a fight to come within striking distance to make the game interesting.
The Fighting Illini committed 17 turnovers in the game, and the Ramblers committed only 11 turnovers. The Illini shot nearly 45 percent from the field; however, the opponents were able to shoot 51 percent from the field. Illinois couldn’t shoot from behind the arc as they shot 28.6 percent while their opponents shot 40 percent on four fewer attempts.
Illinois also scored 23 fewer points than their season average. The Illini thrived on fast-break points this season and was a big part of their success. However, the team was only able to muster up two points in transition.
The Illini couldn’t handle third-team All-American Cameron Krutwig’s masterful performance as he put up 19 points and pulled down 12 rebounds. Ayo Dosunmu was a non-factor in the ball game as he had nine points and six turnovers at the end of regulation. His teammate, the seven-foot, second-team All-American Cockburn, finished with 21 points while shooting 7-12 from the field.
Illinois tried to put together multiple comeback attempts. Kofi Cockburn scored five straight points to end the first half and cut Illini’s deficit to single digits. But whatever Illinois did in the second half, Loyola Chicago answered with a bigger run.
Even after the disappointing loss, Dosunmu said,” My main goal was to help get this program back on the map, help get this program back as one of the national powerhouses,…We didn’t get it done (Sunday), but at the end of the day, this group of guys, there’s no other team I would want to go to war with. All season long, COVID protocols, able to play every game, not having any positive tests. I just think we sacrificed so much to get in this position, and I’m extremely proud of the guys.”
There is no denying that the program is in a much better position than it was three years ago. The program should be able to recruit top prospects as Dosunmu and Cockburn will enter the draft and join the NBA in the near future.
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