No. 22 Illinois bids to end Rutgers’ home unbeaten run

NCAA Basketball
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No. 22 Illinois will look to bounce back from a heartbreaking loss when it visits Rutgers in a Big Ten Conference matchup Saturday afternoon in Piscataway, N.J.

The Fighting Illini (16-8, 8-5) are coming off a 70-69 defeat on their home court against Michigan State on Tuesday night. Illinois had a chance to win the game at the buzzer, but guard Ayo Dosunmu slipped on a wet spot on the court and twisted his knee on the final possession.

The Spartans celebrated near their bench as Dosunmu writhed in pain. He eventually was helped off the court, unable to put any weight on his left leg. An MRI revealed no structural damage to Dosunmu’s knee, but his status for Saturday’s game is uncertain.

Dosunmu is averaging a team-high 15.8 points per game on 47.0 percent shooting. He also is contributing 4.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per contest.

“Everybody’s got to do a little bit more when you replace a guy of Ayo’s stature,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood told reporters. “But at this point, I don’t know if we have to replace him or not.”

Regardless, a difficult challenge awaits against Rutgers (17-8, 8-6), which is 16-0 at home this season.

The Scarlet Knights have lost three of their last four games, including a 72-66 setback at Ohio State on Wednesday, but their confidence at home is as high as it ever has been. Rutgers rallied from an 18-point deficit to knock off Northwestern 77-73 in overtime in its most recent home game on Sunday.

Geo Baker had 25 points, six rebounds and five assists in that game to lead the comeback.

“He’s the ‘clutchest’ player I’ve played with,” Rutgers sophomore Ron Harper Jr. said to reporters. “When Geo has the ball the last five seconds, I know the other coach is nervous.”

This is the second meeting of the season between the programs. In the first matchup on Jan. 11 in Champaign, Ill., the Fighting Illini outlasted the Scarlet Knights for a 54-51 win that came down to the final minute.

Dosunmu finished with a team-high 18 points for Illinois, while freshman big man Kofi Cockburn tallied 11 points and 17 rebounds. The Fighting Illini trailed 46-44 with 3:09 to go but finished the game on a 10-5 run.

Sophomore guard Jacob Young led Rutgers with 16 points off the bench in that contest.

Both Rutgers and Illinois have their sights set on reaching the NCAA Tournament. The Scarlet Knights have not been there since the 1990-91 campaign, while Illinois has missed out in each of the past six years.

Underwood is in his third season with the program. He oversaw four wins in the Big Ten in 2017-18, seven conference victories a season ago and eight conference wins (and counting) this season.

Naturally, he wants more.

“I’ve got a very simplistic approach,” Underwood said. “I can only coach who I have. You make adjustments and get into practice. It’s the ‘next man up’ mentality, and I like our group.”

–Field Level Media

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