Illinois led for all of 25 seconds in Friday evening’s NCAA Tournament first round game against Chattanooga, but the late-game heroics allowed it to advance, following a 54-53 win at PPG Paints Arena.
“Survive and advance, that’s pretty much the theme of that game,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “We live to play another day. We’ll have to enjoy this one, learn from it, and we definitely gotta start games better than we started tonight. And we got to have a different attitude when the tip jumps, or we’ll be in trouble.”
Kofi Cockburn led Illinois with his 17-point, 11-rebound evening, while Alfonso Plummer caught fire in the second half, concluding play with 15 points. Coleman Hawkins contributed 10 points.
Chattanooga was led by Malachi Smith’s 12 points, though he shot 4-of-20 from the field, and former-Duquesne commit Darius Banks grabbed 13 rebounds.
“I thought we did play well, and we’ve got a competitive team now,” Chattanooga coach Lamont Paris said. At face value, our team is pretty good and not compared to the SoCon or any other league. At face value, if you want to watch a good team or play against a good team, we got a good team, and so I believed it. Tough way to go out, obviously. I’ve done this 26 years. This is my favorite group.”
The start to this game went Chattanooga’s way in every facet as it opened on a 20-6 run which featured points from four different scorers.
Mocs fans including alum Terrell Owens loudly supported this and grew in vocality, while the Fighting Illini had struggles finding any rhythm from the field.
Cockburn was a popular target early in, receiving post touches, but found himself going to the free throw line where he was 5-for-10 from the line. These trips put both Josh Ayeni and Silvio De Sousa in foul trouble.
Illinois’s offense started to get going when Omar Payne converted a basket and was fouled, completing a three-point play at the line.
Before the end of the first half, the teams were separated by two points, but Smith’s layup separated the teams by a 33-29 count at halftime.
Similar to the first half, Chattanooga went off to the races in the third quarter, going on a 7-0 run, again padding the advantage to double digits.
The Illini would respond following a timeout with a 10-0 run as the teams were separated by a point. Plummer began to find his shot from three-point range.
Both sides would match each other shot for shot before Cockburn snagged an offensive rebound and his putback gave Illinois its first lead of the evening.
When Smith made two free throws of his own, Chattanooga had to get one stop to secure victory, but instead fouled Plummer who calmly made both of his foul shots.
The Mocs had two looks to punch their ticket to the second round, but Smith’s shot was blocked, and his jumper was off the mark, allowing for the Illini to exhale.
“Remembering last year, it was Loyola and just remembering how that felt, like saying to myself we can’t let it happen again, can’t let it happen again,” said Cockburn. “It was a fight, a lot of emotions. I was all over the place in that one. I was like ‘we gotta lock in’. I was eager to get a rebound or whatever play it was to be made. So just really locked in and focused.”