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No. 24 Illinois puts first place on the line at Northwestern

No Kofi Cockburn or Andre Curbelo? No problem.

At least not on Tuesday night as No. 24 Illinois edged No. 10 Michigan State 56-55 in Champaign to regain first place in the Big Ten Conference.

"I told the team, I wrote it on the board: Culture win," Fighting Illini coach Brad Underwood said after that game. "That's what tonight was, and I couldn't be happier and prouder of a group of guys in that locker room than I was tonight."

Illinois hopes to avoid a letdown Saturday when it makes the bus ride to Evanston for another conference contest, with Northwestern.

While it isn't known whether Cockburn (concussion) or Curbelo (health and safety protocol) will be back, the Illini (14-5, 7-2) demonstrated against Michigan State that they have the depth, experience and resourcefulness to win any game, no matter what combination of players they have.

They got 16 points from Trent Frazier and 11 from Alfonso Plummer, plus 16 critical points off the bench from freshman Luke Goode and Florida transfer Omar Payne. Illinois also held the Spartans to 34.5 percent shooting and committed just seven turnovers, allowing it to overcome a 41-27 disadvantage on the boards.

"Who gave us a chance? Who would have thought?" Underwood mused. "Doesn't matter how many men are down. Doesn't matter, doesn't matter. Man, when you got character and you got guys that are together, you can do a lot of things. You find a way."

The way, of course, would be easier if Cockburn's 21.1 points and 11.8 rebounds per game make it back into the lineup. His presence commands double-teams that usually give guards such as Plummer (16.2 ppg) and Frazier (13.5 ppg) clean looks from long range.

The Illini average 78.1 points per game and convert nearly 10 3-pointers.

That's a far cry from Northwestern (9-9, 2-7), although it's not that the Wildcats aren't capable of winning against the best. After all, they sprung an upset of Michigan State on Jan. 15 and have had close calls in losses against Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin -- all top 15 opponents at the time.

Northwestern's 72-70 defeat at Michigan on Wednesday was a tough one to swallow. Northwestern rallied in the second half, grabbing a 62-55 lead with 5:09 left on Robbie Beran's layup, but the Wildcats couldn't close the game out.

It was the seventh loss in eight games for Northwestern, which has been blown out just once. That was in an 80-60 setback on Sunday at No. 4 Purdue. That has lent an air of familiarity to most of coach Chris Collins' press conferences after games.

"We answered every run," he said after an 82-76 loss to eighth-ranked Wisconsin on Jan. 18. "We have to keep fighting and get ready for the next game."

Pete Nance leads four Wildcats in double figures with 16 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Boo Buie chips in 14.9 points and 5.3 assists a night, while Chase Audige adds 11.5 points.

This will be the 183rd meeting of the schools. Illinois owns a whopping 139-43 advantage, winning the last six matchups.

--Field Level Media

Updated January 28, 2022

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