CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- An Illinois team trying to rediscover its identity and the win column at the same time found the perfect time to get Penn State on the schedule.
Illinois found some early offensive success and led from the opening tip in a 79-65 victory over a Penn State team that hasn’t won a game in over a month.
Kofi Cockburn led the No. 22 Illini (10-5, 6-3 in Big Ten Conference) with his 11th double-double of the season as the 7-footer finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds. Arguably the most pleasant sight Tuesday night for Illinois fans was watching Cockburn connect on his first four free throw attempts after the Jamaican native had made only 54.5 percent from the line this season. Cockburn finished 9 of 13 from the foul line.
"We sat down and talked for 40 minutes about this with Kofi because it's simply about seeing the basketball go through the hoop," Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said. "When he's making free throws at a consistent rate, he's a dominant weapon."
Penn State (3-6, 0-5) is coming off a pause to its program due to concerns over the coronarvius pandemic and is in the midst of a stretch from they’re trying to play five games in 10 days to make up for postponed contests. The Nittany Lions ended the first half without a field goal for the final six minutes and 48 seconds but due to inconsistent Illinois offense, the visitors were only outscored 13-6 during that stretch of play.
For the first time this season Illinois went with a change in its starting lineup as Holy Cross transfer Jacob Grandison started in place of senior Da’Monte WIlliams at the 4 spot of the Illini lineup and the 6-foot-6 fourth-year junior provided an instant spark on rebounds and an offensive weapon at the high post against Penn State’s 2-3 matchup zone defense.
"You're always searching and I guess we'd hit a lull here," Underwood said about his starting lineup. "I've been studying who is our best offensive lineup and who is our best defensive lineup."
Grandison, who arrived at State Farm Center Tuesday night averaging just 8.5 minutes per game, didn’t score his first points until there were 17 minutes left in the game but provided four rebounds, three assists and several more hustle plays critical to an early 13-5 advantage. Grandison finished the final 10 minutes and 53 seconds on the bench with his right shoulder wrapped in ice, which, according to Underwood, is a nagging injury that he's been dealing with for at least a week.
Penn State stayed within striking distance early with a barrage of three-point shots as the Nittany Lions connected on six of its first eight shots from beyond the arc but then didn’t see another one fall for another 22 minutes of action.
Illinois senior guard Trent Frazier saw his three-point shots fall early to provide a 13-point night and a defensive effort of running around Penn State point guard Jamari Wheeler to force the Lions senior into a night of four points.
"Everybody came in and played their butts off for 40 minutes when they were subbed in to play," Frazier said. "I truly believe that if we play with energy for 40 minutes, we're impossible to beat."
Illinois has now ended its first multi-game losing streak in the 2020-21 season, a point in this campaign that Illini head coach Brad Underwood called “a critical stage”, and is slated to have a 10-day break before taking the floor again. After the Jan. 23 game at Michigan State was postponed for COVID-19 protocols, Illinois will next host No. 4 Iowa (12-2, 6-1) on Dec. 29 in a 8 p.m. tip on FS1.
"I'm not expecting any real movement from the league in terms of moving games conference-wise," Underwood said. "We are aggressively trying to find a non-conference opponent who meets our testing protocols. It's unique that we're in the middle of January and we don't know who our next opponent is."