Illinois will be seeking two Sunday celebrations.
The Illini will play for their first Big Ten Tournament championship since 2005, facing Ohio State in the title game. They’ll be rewarded — potentially doubly — a few hours later when they hear their name called on Selection Sunday for the first time since 2013.
No. 2 seed Illinois advanced by beating third-seeded Iowa 82-71 in a Saturday semifinal behind an array of rim-rattling dunks, flexing in the paint, sizzling transition shots and plain old moxie.
The Illini (22-6) appear to be peaking right on cue.
“You work at it throughout the course of the season,” coach Brad Underwood said. “It’s like fine-tuning a Ferrari. It takes a little bit here and there. It’s chemistry. It’s roles. It’s personalities. It’s finding the right offense and right defense.”
And all of it is working for Illinois.
The Big Ten Tournament title game won’t be an anticipated rematch against top-seeded Michigan, which couldn’t quite complete a comeback against the Buckeyes and fell 68-67 in the first semifinal.
But third-ranked Illinois still will feel validated if it can walk out of Lucas Oil Stadium with a trophy — and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Illinois’ spark is Ayo Dosunmu. Its muscle? That’s Kofi Cockburn. The dazzle? His name is Andre Curbelo.
A team usually needs all of it to make it far in March.
“We are becoming more connected,” Underwood said. “(Players) are playing for a purpose bigger than themselves individually. It’s all we preach and talk about in the locker room.”
That locker room was calm, comparatively speaking to regular-season wins, yet again. Illinois has a mix of confidence, focus and hunger.
“We’ve got more games,” Cockburn said. “We’re not finished yet. But being here right now feels so great.”
Cockburn had his best game against Iowa when it mattered. The 7-foot sophomore dominated his matchup against Luka Garza, the Big Ten Player of the Year, scoring 26 points with eight rebounds.
Dosunmu was key as a distributor and scorer, finishing with 18 points and nine assists while grabbing seven rebounds.
Curbelo, a freshman, rebounded from a rough quarterfinal to score 12 points with seven rebounds. He entertained fans with some fancy spin moves to weave his way to the basket and jumped on a loose ball, feeding it to Dosunmu for a breakaway dunk to stave off an 8-0 Iowa run in the second half.
Cockburn set the tone offensively and helped neutralize Garza. After scoring only nine points on 2-of-7 shooting during their regular-seating meeting, Cockburn scored 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting for a 45-37 halftime lead.
“I thought Kofi was outstanding,” Underwood said. “I thought Kofi’s performance in the first half was just dominant. Not just because he scored 18, but the job he did defensively, and he stayed out of foul trouble in the first half.”
Playing against Garza, a senior, the last two seasons helped Cockburn develop into a better player.
“It’s all about being a sponge,” Cockburn said. “Great bigs in the Big Ten each year. Taking as much information and as much knowledge as I can. That experience taught me a lot to be the player I am. I’m really appreciative.”
Garza, who picked up his fourth foul with 6:02 left and sat for a critical stretch, finished with 21 points on 8- of-21 shooting and added 12 rebounds.
Illinois dominated the paint 52-24, putting on a dunk show for the jubilant fans in the crowd. The Illini also outrebounded Iowa 42-35.
The Hawkeyes’ first-half 3-point shooting threatened to keep them in the game. They hit 6 of 13 before the break but made only 2 of 11 in the second half.
Iowa cut Illinois’ 14-point lead to 74-69 with 3:42 left.
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That’s when Illinois exemplified what it’s made of to hold off the fifth-ranked Hawkeyes (21-8). During a timeout, Cockburn said he told his teammates: “It’s winning time.”
Curbelo dove on the floor to swipe away a loose ball, finding Dosunmu for a fast-break dunk. The play started an 8-2 run that ended the game.
Iowa missed its last five shots and didn’t score in the final 2:45.
“For us it’s been about our defense,” Underwood said. “This is the attitude that our guys have. This is the connectivity that our guys have. It was relaxed in the timeout. It was a stern look, like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get a stop.’ … That’s the belief this team has.”
The Illini could continue to create more believers in them with a special Sunday.