CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — One way to guarantee a hot start to a game is not even give your opponent a chance at the lead.
The was the Illini’s strategy Tuesday against Penn State at the State Farm Center: Take the lead and don’t look back.
Illinois was up 13-5 in the first 3 minutes, 45 seconds, including seven points early from Kofi Cockburn, who finished with a sixth consecutive double-double of 21 points and 12 rebounds. Besides one tie at 17-all, Illinois was in control for the entire 40 minutes, winning 79-65.
“We competed more in practice (this week) and I think the coaches did a really good job with the practice plan, putting in different lineups and finding five guys who were going to play for 40 minutes from start to finish,” Trent Frazier said. “We have one team goal and that is to win. We got better tonight and took a step forward.”
It was the energetic performance that Illinois coach Brad Underwood was desperately looking for after losses to Maryland and Ohio State.
Underwood made his first starting lineup adjustment of the season in starting redshirt junior Jacob Grandison in place of Da’Monte Williams. Grandison’s presence was felt with three points, four rebounds and three assists. The Illini finished with 18 assists overall.
“We got off to a better start today and the insertion of Jacob worked out nice. It wasn’t that Da’Monte was doing anything poorly. I thought it was just a change,” Underwood said. “I don’t really care too much about who starts and who doesn’t. It is about trying to find that right mix.
“Eighteen assists is something I am really proud of and I’m really proud of our execution against (Penn State’s) zone (defense). We have a very good passing team and that was evident tonight.”
If intensity was what was needed, Giorgi Bezhanishvilli provided it by going to the floor to grab a loose ball and igniting the Illini bench early. A Cockburn block on a dunk attempt by Penn State’s Josh Harrar was another intensity-building play for the Illini in the first half. Bezhanishvilli finished with six points and two rebounds.
“I liked our energy and our sustainability tonight. Tonight’s game was right up there. The unselfishness and the ability to turn down a good shot to get a great shot,” Underwood said. “I’m excited. When we can have possessions where we don’t over dribble, the ball moves and, more importantly, the players move, that’s fun to see and that is really good basketball.”
The Illini led 42-28 at halftime.
Frazier connected on three first-half 3-pointers and Adam Miller added two of his own but Penn State was able to hang around because of its own shooting from behind the arc. The Nittany Lions were 6-for-8 from 3 in the first 15 minutes.
In his first meeting with Penn State on Dec. 23, Ayo Dosunmu scored a game-high 30 points, but he was having trouble connecting on anything Tuesday. He finished the first half with three points on 1-for-5 shooting, including missed 3-pointers. As the lead approached 20 points, Dosunmu got more comfortable and finished with 13 points — his lowest total scoring performance since posting 12 against Purdue on Jan. 1.