Before it escapes our priorities list, let’s praise Kofi Cockburn for bringing Illinois to a tie, and then giving them a lead they’d never relinquish. He connected on two free-throws. It seems simple, right? It won them a championship.
He did the same against Michigan State last year, and nobody remembers it because Ayo dropped in a pile and Alan Griffin didn’t box out Xavier Tillman.
Make your free-throws. Box out. Make your free-throws. Box out. Make your free-throws.
If you’re an Illini fan, and the term “box out” sends a chill through your spine, congratulations on reaching your golden years. You are at least forty, and despite advancing decrepitude, you’ve failed to wipe the name “Sean Higgins” from your memory.
1989 was a helluva year for making free-throws and boxing out. Or not.
The Midwest Regional Final pitted #1 seed Illinois against a loaded Syracuse team, six of whom played in the NBA. It was tight, decided in the final 30 seconds. Illinois missed a lot of free-throws, which allowed Jim Boeheim’s squad a chance.
But then, after considerable discomfort — that hollow feeling in your stomach when you know that an Illini game is slipping away and fate has cursed you yet again — Kenny Battle stepped to the line.
The lore among my high school friends holds that Battle huddled his teammates and uttered one word: “Money.” As in “I got this.” As in “don’t worry, I’m going to put an end to the Orangemen.”
Not much has changed in 32 years. When Trent Frazier buries a three, he says “cash.” But in this case, Battle was talking about a pair of free-throws he intended to bury. Promised to bury. Knew he would bury.
He buried them. And Syracuse.
If you’re comparing great Illini teams, the 2021 version is much more like 1989 than 2005. Illini ’21 is a highlight reel of flashy passes and thunderous dunks. Even the uniforms are the same. Form-fitting jerseys emblazoned with classic scripts. Mid-thigh shorts that don’t THANK YOU JESUS resemble Moroccan culottes.
Brad Underwood is a showman. He understands that basketball is entertainment. Where 2005 was exciting for basketball coaches, 2021 is fun for basketball fans They might not know what it means to “ice a ball screen,” but they thrill to a well-lobbed oop.
Ayo Dosunmu is the guy who put his home state team on his back, and dragged them to the finish line. The comp here is Battle, not because those other Flyin’ Illini didn’t stay home, and not because they weren’t outstanding ballers. It’s because Battle was the heart and soul of that team. When he stepped to that line and promised to bring them home, you believed he would do it.
In 2020, you hoped the Illini could overcome their tendencies. Andres Feliz gave you courage, and Alan’s shooting and rebounding gave you a chance. But you knew the Achilles Heels. Even in January of this year, you could spot the weaknesses.
And then you watched everything coalesce. All the pieces came together. Still not perfect, but enough.
Did you believe when Kofi stepped to the line, with the Illini down a point? Underwood did. He sent the rest of the team back on defense. Kofi drained the pair. Illinois won a championship.
This team is not the Illini of 2020. This team is not the Illini of January 2021.
Free-throws. Box out. Free-throws. Box out. Free-throws.