No. 14 Illinois aims to keep momentum vs. Texas-Rio Grande Valley

·3 min read

This is the Illinois basketball team coach Brad Underwood is used to watching.

The one that slogged through losses to Marquette and Cincinnati, turning the ball over a combined 40 times and failing to take advantage of its physical ability inside, disappeared in Tuesday night's 72-64 win over Kansas State in the third-place game of the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, Mo.

Kofi Cockburn was dealing inside for 23 points and 13 rebounds, while Alfonso Plummer canned seven 3-pointers off the bench and added 21 points. What's more, the 14th-ranked Fighting Illini (3-2) got back to defending with purpose and competing on every trip down the floor.

Underwood looks for that version of his squad to show up again Friday night in Champaign, where his team hosts Texas-Rio Grande Valley.

"That locker room is filled with a bunch of guys who really want to be really good," he said. "They want to really do the right things. They want to play the right way."

Beating Kansas State was a step in the right direction for many reasons. Even though the starting backcourt of Trent Frazier (leg) and Andre Curbelo (post-concussion symptoms) was limited at best, Illinois played a much more coherent game.

The presence of Cockburn helped a lot. He displayed a more well-rounded game, showing a soft touch and range out to each elbow in the halfcourt, and even made a nice pass out of the double-team to an open Plummer for a key 3-pointer just past the midway point of the second half.

And Plummer, the Utah transfer, displayed the kind of range that could make him an ideal foil to the dominant Cockburn.

"The bench was energetic," Plummer said. "The coaches were energetic. It kept us motivated to play hard every possession and helped us to win the game."

Meanwhile, Rio Grande (4-2) took its second straight win Tuesday at a tournament in Flagstaff, Ariz., edging Cal State Fullerton 72-67 behind 18 points, nine rebounds and a career-high four assists from Southern Miss transfer Justin Johnson. The Vaqueros also got career highs of 17 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots from freshman Donte Houston Jr.

Johnson is leading the team in scoring at 17.3 points, doing it in an efficient manner. He's canning 56.5 percent from the field while hitting 6-of-13 on 3-pointers. Ricky Nelson adds 13 points on 46.9 percent shooting and LaQuan Butler chips in 12 points.

Rio Grande averages 75 points per game but makes just under 45 percent from the field. The Vaqueros are permitting 77.8 points, a figure inflated by their 104-50 loss earlier this month at 17th-ranked Arizona. They are sending opponents to the line an average of nearly 26 times per game.

First-year coach Matt Figger is aiming to get his team to play fast on offense and keep the ball out of the lane on defense.

"We want to attack the rim on offense, shoot open threes and get to the free-throw line," he said. "We want to play fun, fast style of basketball."

Illinois has won all four games in the series, including a 71-59 decision in their most recent matchup in 2005.

--Field Level Media

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