Cincinnati mounted a big first-half charge to take a stunning halftime lead, then steadily pulled away from the No. 14 Illini for a 71-51 victory that pushed them into the championship game of the Hall of Fame Classic.
Mike Saunders Jr. scored 20 points and Jeremiah Davenport added 19 to lead the Bearcats (5-0), who went 17 of 20 from the foul line and won the battle of the boards against the bigger Illini (2-2) inside T-Mobile Center.
That earned the right to play the winner of No. 13 Arkansas and Kansas State for the tournament title.
Kofi Cockburn, who was suspended the first three games of the season for violating NCAA rules, had 18 points and seven rebounds for the Fighting Illini (2-2). Andre Curbelo added 12 points on 4-of-12 shooting with five turnovers.
The 7-foot, 275-pound center from Jamaica bullied his way to six straight points to open the game, and the Illini raced to a 19-4 lead before the Bearcats seemed to realize the game had tipped off. At one point, Cockburn had outscored Cincinnati 12-8 as the Illini built a 23-8 advantage nearing the midpoint of the first half.
That’s when Bearcats' Coach Wes Miller made a couple of subtle adjustments that got them on track.
They slowed Cockburn with physical double-teams in the post, and they began jumping the passing lanes, and at one point the Bearcats held Illinois without a field goal for nearly seven minutes. They pieced together a 14-1 run of their own during the stretch, and David DeJulius made a couple foul shots just before halftime to give Cincinnati a 34-31 lead.
The Illini’s slump endured well into the second half.
Davenport drilled a 3-pointer right out of the locker room, and Illinois proceeded to miss 10 consecutive field-goal attempts at one point, as the hot-shooting Bearcats’ stunning run eventually reached 22-5 to start the second half.
The nation’s top-ranked defense through the first couple weeks of the season suddenly struggled to guard the Bearcats on the perimeter. And regardless of whether Cockburn wasn’t in the lineup, the Illini had trouble chasing down deep rebounds, which gave Cincinnati second and third chances on several trips down the floor.
That was enough to send the Bearcats to their first win over a ranked team since beating Tennessee on Dec. 18, 2019.
The Illini will play for third place tonight against former Illinois Coach Bruce Weber and the Kansas State Wildcats.