When you’re a team on a hot streak, the worst thing that can happen is for there to be a long break between games. This was evident for the Illini (8-3, 4-1 Big Ten) who struggled mightily against Purdue (7-5, 2-3 Big Ten) in their first game of the new year. Freshman Andre Curbelo summed it up “We weren’t shooting it good… free throws were a mess.” Free throws were, in fact, a big mess with the Illini shooting 9-for-22 from the line collectively. But still, as good teams do, the Illini found a way to win.
In most Big Ten games, if you come out flat the other team will jump on you. In this game, both teams came out ice cold and it took until the second half for either team to start finding some offensive rhythm. The Boilermakers started the second half on a 15-0 run to go up 39-33. The Illini then stormed back with the help from seniors Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams’ three point shooting.
Freshman Coleman Hawkins had one of the best games of his young career. Hawkins finished the game with five points and two rebounds in 11 minutes but had a far bigger impact than those stats suggested. His energy and defense had a huge impact and the team played energized with him on the floor. “I just want him to keep doing what he’s doing.” Head coach Brad Underwood said, “He’s doing a lot of the right things.”
The Illini were led in scoring by Kofi Cockburn who finished the game with 14 points and 10 rebounds, his sixth double-double of the season. Ayo Dosunmu added 12 points and five rebounds and Williams had 11 points and 10 rebounds for his second double-double of the season. Additionally, Williams leads the nation in 3 point percentage shooting with a whopping 70 percent from beyond the arc this season. He went 3-5 from deep tonight.
Purdue was led by Brandon Newman and Trevion Williams who both totaled 14 points. The Boilermakers as a team shot 39 percent from the field. The past two years have been rough for Matt Painter, who has seen an exodus of many of his best players through the NBA draft and the transfer portal.
This season has shown two different versions of Illini basketball. A legitimate Final Four team and team that struggles to find motivation and maintain consistency. There is no question that the talent is there. Dosunmu and Cockburn are up there with the best in the country and players like Williams, Frazier and Giorgi Bezhanishvili are a great supporting cast. The only problem is consistency. This season is far from a normal year and in the big games the Illini have shown up to play and fought hard. But in games like tonight, and the Missouri game, it seems like a different team, struggling on offense and defense and lacking energy. This is something that will need to be fixed for this team to have a deep run in March.
The Illini continue the campaign on Thursday away against Northwestern. The Wildcats are a team that has experienced a renaissance this season, starting 3-1 in the league with their only loss coming against Iowa. This will be a tough test for the Illini.