Illinois knocks off Iowa 82-71 in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, setting up a special Sunday for the Illini

Shannon Ryan, Chicago Tribune
·3 min read

Illinois will be seeking two Sunday celebrations.

The Illini will play for its 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 (22-6) advanced by beating third-seeded Iowa 82-71 in Saturday’s semifinals behind an array of rim-rattling dunks, flexing in the paint, sizzling transition shots and plain old moxie.

The Illini appear to be peaking right on cue.

Illinois was looking for vindication by making it to the tournament championship game after it felt Michigan unjustly was awarded the outright regular-season title, claiming its greater number of wins and head-to-head vcitory should count for a share.

There won’t be a rematch as the top-seeded Wolverines couldn’t quite complete a comeback against the Buckeyes and fell 68-67 in the first semifinal.

But Illinois still will feel validated if it can walk out of Lucas Oil Stadium with a trophy — and a date to return as 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.

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 as key of a distributor, finishing with 18 points and nine assists while grabbing seven rebounds.

Curbelo, a freshman, rebounded from a rough quarterfinal outing 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.

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.

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.

The Illinois-Iowa rivalry has been bubbling. The last game both teams played before the pandemic canceled last year’s Big Ten Tournament was against each other on March 8, 2020, a dramatic matchup in which the Illini won 78-76 in Champaign, with Cockburn blocking a shot at the buzzer to save the win.

“They want to kill us, and we want to kill them,” Dosunmu said after that game.

Illinois won again 80-75 in their lone regular-season meeting Jan. 29 behind 25 points from Dosunmu and 24 from Frazier.

The Illini came up even bigger Saturday.