Indiana men’s basketball head coach Mike Woodson called No. 18 Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn a “monster in the middle” before the Hoosiers’ game against the Illini on Saturday.
Sure enough, there he was, a 7-footer clad in Illini orange bullying and elbowing his way to the rim throughout the game. Indiana had answers for Cockburn in the first half, but couldn’t keep him contained in the second half of Saturday’s 74-57 loss in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington.
Trayce Jackson-Davis would normally be on the court as Cockburn’s foil, but he was subbed out just under five minutes into the first half after picking up two fouls.
Enter Michael Durr and Race Thompson. The two worked together to keep Cockburn away from the rim, switching off the responsibility as necessary. They had limited success keeping Cockburn away entirely, but held him to just 2-7 on field goals in the first half.
The two were successful in boxing out Cockburn when shots didn’t fall, hauling in six first half rebounds to his two. In a postgame press conference, Thompson said he was focused on giving Cockburn different looks, running around him.
“He’s a big body down there,” Thompson said. “He’s definitely tough. He’s a big body, he’s hard to get around. He’s heavy, he’s strong. So, respect to him. He’s a good player.”
But that’s not all Cockburn can do, his mere presence in the paint can draw Indiana’s defenders away from the perimeter. The Illini ended the first half shooting a 4-10 clip from beyond the arc, with some of their makes being highly contested.
Xavier Johnson and Parker Stewart led the way through the first half with 17 points. Stewart shot 2-2 on 3-pointers while Johnson provided hustle, picking up one of his own missed shots for a rebound and a second chance layup.
Indiana ultimately took a fragile 36-34 lead into the locker room. Illinois matched it blow for blow in the first half, and it was just the beginning.
The two teams began the second half trading blows. Cockburn opened up scoring, leveraging his size for a hook shot. It took over a minute for Indiana to answer, with Thompson making a second chance jump shot to give the Hoosiers a 2 point lead.
Jackson-Davis was back on the court for Indiana and quickly formed a tandem with Johnson. Johnson found Jackson-Davis sneaking past Cockburn for a layup and extended Indiana’s slim lead to four points thanks with an alley-oop.
But Illinois had an answer for everything, neither team could chain together a good offensive and defensive possession. It took just over seven minutes for one of the two teams to go on a run. Much to the chagrin of the Indiana crowd, that team was Illinois.
Illinois’ Jacob Grandison drained two consecutive 3-pointers to reclaim the lead. Then Cockburn began to work on Jackson-Davis, with the latter’s fouls leading to free throws for the Illini.
“The three-point shot got away from us again tonight,” Woodson said. “I thought the two big threes that Jacob hit was really the turning point in the downward spiral of our ball club.”
Cockburn’s dominance didn’t end on the offensive side of the floor, Jackson-Davis didn’t score in the final 13 minutes of the second half. In the end, Cockburn burst free for 12 second half points. The Illini could also turn to Trent Frazier, who led Illinois with 23 points, when Cockburn couldn’t get to the rim.
Meanwhile, Indiana wasn’t able to put anything together on offense, allowing Illinois to go on a 26-11 run in the final ten minutes of the second half.
“I can’t tell you one play we called tonight, you know, unless I was calling it,” Woodson said. “[Johnson] had kind of turned the corner in that area. But our offense, we struggled tonight because we never got into anything.”
Indiana will go on the road to face Northwestern at 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Illinois.