The Illini dug in behind Kofi Cockburn and guard Alfonso Plummer, whose go-ahead free throws with 12 seconds to go helped them pull out a 54-53 NCAA Tournament win over Chattanooga that maybe they didn’t deserve but will certainly take.
Plummer scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half, including three 3-pointers that kept Illinois (23-9) within striking distance. The 7-foot Cockburn, fending off bodies left and right, finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds while absorbing 11 fouls. His putback with 45 seconds left gave the Illini the first of just two leads they held all night.
Chattanooga still had two chances to pick up its first NCAA Tournament win since 1997 in the closing seconds but sophomore star Malachi Smith missed twice. His runner with 4 seconds left was blocked by Coleman Hawkins. Smith chased down the rebound and pulled up from about 12 feet, but the ball clanged off the rim and into Hawkins’ hands, capping a 4 for 20 performance for the Southern Conference Player of the Year.
Illinois didn’t exactly light it up either. Senior Trent Frazer missed all six of his shots but did make two free throws with 3:37 to go. Andre Curbelo was 1 for 7. The Illini made just 3 of 17 3-pointers, turned it over 14 times — including a couple of baffling passes to nowhere that sailed out of bounds — and survived anyway.
Paris promised to throw multiple bodies at Cockburn in an effort to keep the 7-footer in check. It worked early, as the Mocs harassed him nearly every time down the floor.
It led to a lot of pushing, a lot of shoving and — for a while — a lot of fouls. Josh Ayeni and Silvio De Sousa each drew three whistles in the first half alone. Cockburn struggled to take advantage, missing 5 of 8 free throws early before he and the Illini started to get into a rhythm after the Mocs were forced to go small.