CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Five years ago, Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams as freshmen suffered through one of the worst seasons in modern Illinois basketball history (14-18, 4-14 Big Ten) in Brad Underwood’s first season as Illinois head coach. On Sunday, Frazier and Williams in their final games as Illini at State Farm Center cut down the nets as Big Ten regular-season champions.
After last-place Nebraska upset Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon, No. 20-ranked Illinois clinched a share of its first Big Ten regular-season title in 17 years with a 74-72 win over No. 24 Iowa. The Illini, which trailed by as many as 15 on Sunday, also clinched the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament next week, thanks to a head-to-head win over Wisconsin earlier this season.
Kofi Cockburn led illinois (22-8, 15-5 Big Ten) with 21 points and 14 rebounds — his 15th double-double in 25 games this season — while Alfonso Plummer scored 15 points. Andre Curbelo had 12 points and six assists off the bench. In place of injury Jacob Grandison (shoulder), Coleman Hawkins had 9 points and 11 rebounds.
Keegan Murray led iowa (22-9, 12-8 Big Ten) with 22 points and 11 rebounds, while twin brother Kris Murray had 13 points and four rebounds. Tony Perkins added 17 points, 12 rebounds and five assists.
Iowa scored on 12 straight possessions late in the first half, making 11 of 12 shots, to open up a 43-28 lead. But Illinois responded with its own 9-0 run to end the half, holding the Hawkeyes scoreless for the final 3:12, to go into halftime down 43-37.
Illinois continued its momentum into the second half with a 10-3 run to start the half to take a 47-46 lead. Goal Keegan Murray went on a personal 8-0 run to reclaim a seven-point lead for Iowa. But Illinois went on a 16-4 run, paced by a combined 14 points from Curbelo and Coleman Hawkinsto take a 73-67 lead with 3:04 remaining.
AT Tony Perkins and-one cut the deficit to 73-71 with one minute left. Trent Frazier then crowded Keegan Murray on a 3-pointer with 15.9 seconds left, but Murray missed two of three.
In the end the super seniors sealed the win. Da’Monte Williams split a pair of free throws to give Illinois a two-point lead, and Frazier pulled down a rebound off a Kris Murray missed three and ran out the clock to a sea of orange and blue humanity rushing the court.
What it means: Sunday provided physical validation of the last three years of a return to Big Ten prominence with its first Big Ten championship in a generation. If Illinois had lost, the Illinois would have won five more Big Ten games than any other conference team during the last three years (44-16) — with two legendary players in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn — without a Big Ten regular-season championship, but this team that has overcome consistent injuries and illness will now have its own place in Illinois history.
This three-year stretch winningest Big Ten stretch in program history and the seventh-winningest run in Big Ten history. The Illini have won 29 of its last 35 games against conference foes. During Big Ten play, the Illini are 16-4 at home during the last two seasons and 15-5 on the road during the last two seasons. At the moment, Illinois is a Big Ten power — and finally, once again, a regular-season champion.
Star of the game: Kofi Cockburn was a monster, but Coleman Hawkins had his best game as an Illini. He had nine points, including five during the Illini’s second-half run, and he was awesomely active at the rim as a rebounder and shot-blocker and helped bother Keegan Murray (22 points on 7-for-22 shooting) — who scored many of his points when Hawkins was on the bench. The Illini have struggled to guard star fours this season, but a consistent Hawkins could be the antidote.
Status of the game: Iowa shot 10 for 22 at the free-throw line. Illinois held Iowa to 10-for-29 shooting in the second half.
Don’t overlook: Andre Curbelo is a rollercoaster ride, but when he’s good, Illinois can reach another gear. He had four turnovers, some of them sloppy, and he crowded out. And he shot 4-for-12 from the field, forcing some low-percentage midrange jumpers. But he also scored night points during the Illini’s late-second half run and dished six assists. Also, don’t overlook his defense (far superior to Plummer), which was key to slowing Iowa in the second half.
What’s next: Illinois will be the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and play the winner of Thursday’s Michigan-Indiana game on Friday at 10:30 am CT at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Illinois won the Big Ten Tournament last season for the first time since 2005 with wins over Rutgers, Iowa and Ohio State, pushing the Illini to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Illinois is 31-20 all-time in the Big Ten Tournament with three championships (2003, 2005, 2021) and four runners-up finishes (1999, 2000, 2004, 2008).