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How Illinois avoided a March Madness upset after trailing for 39 minutes

The Illini were the luckiest team to survive in March Madness.

Chattanooga v Illinois Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball has been reborn the last two seasons under Brad Underwood. The Illini went seven straight seasons without an NCAA tournament, but finally broke through last season with a Big Ten tournament championship and a No. 1 seed in March Madness. Their run ended early when local rival Loyola-Chicago pulled off the round of 32 upset, leaving Illinois to regroup without All-American guard Ayo Dosunmu as he jumped to the NBA.

The Illini started slow this year with losses to Marquette and Cincinnati in Nov., but since then they’ve been one of the 20 or so best teams in the country. Illinois eventually won a share of the Big Ten tournament title, and had a claim as the most balanced team in the conference.

The entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 seed. After such a disappointing loss last year, it felt like Underwood was under some pressure from the fanbase to show his impressive regular season results could translate to March.

For the first 39 minutes against No. 13 seed Chattanooga on Friday, Illinois was on the brink of another tournament disaster. Then with 46 seconds left in regulation, the Illini took their first lead of the night. They hung on for a 54-53 win to advance to the second round and a matchup with the winner of Houston/UAB.

Chattanooga won the Southern in the regular season and the conference tournament, but they still weren’t a very popular pick in the bracket with only 16.6 percent of people on ESPN choosing them to beat Illinois. It felt like it was destined it happen for much of the time on Friday, but eventually Illinois’ superior size and talent won out.

The Mocs led by four points at halftime, and opened up the lead to 40-29 three minutes later. Illinois had a horrible shooting night — 38.8 percent from the field, 3-of-17 from three, and 13-of-22 from the foul line — but senior guard Alfonso Plummer made all three of the team’s triples in the second half to help cut into the deficit.

A layup from Kofi Cockburn put Illinois for the first time all night with 46 seconds left. Chattanooga immediately took the lead back with a pair of free throws, but Plummer drew a foul himself and put Illinois up one by hitting them both.

The Mocs had one more chance, but their wide open final shot was just off.

Here’s how Illinois stole victory from the jaws of defeat.

The Illini defense stepped up late

A three-pointer from Grant Ledford put Chattanooga up 51-46 with 4:46 left in the second half. The Mocs wouldn’t record another field goal before the end of the game.

Illinois’ defense started to lock down with the game on the line. Cockburn had three blocks on the night, none more impressive than this one.

Raise your hand if you didn’t know Cockburn had hops like that.

After Plummer’s free throws put Illinois up, Chattanooga had one more chance. Coleman Hawkins made a great play to block their layup attempt before the Mocs eventually recovered the ball and missed the buzzer-beater.

Chattanooga shot 32.3 percent from the field and 26.7 percent from three in the loss. They also shot 50 percent from the foul line, so maybe it wasn’t all about the Illini defense.

Kofi Cockburn was effective even if it wasn’t his best game

Cockburn was an All-American on Illinois’ No. 1 seed last year who waffled on coming back for another year before eventually returning. He was even more dominant this year, averaging 21.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per game while again earning All-American honors.

For as good as Cockburn is, he does have some shortcomings. He isn’t particularly mobile defensively, he’s a poor passer on offense, and he doesn’t have shooting range at all (though 64 percent from the foul line this year counted as an improvement).

Still, Cockburn is certifiably huge at 7-foot, 290 pounds, and that was enough to give the Illini what they needed.

Cockburn finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds.

Illinois has to play better if they want to reach the second weekend

This was not an encouraging performance from the Illini, but hey: a win is a win. March is all about the ability to survive and advance, and the Illini survived.

They better step it up next round or they’ll be going home. Underwood’s job is safe regardless, but the Illini really need a Sweet 16 trip to keep the positive momentum in the program going, especially when so much of this team is expected to be gone next year. Losing to No. 13 seed Chattanooga would have been a major bummer, but somehow, some way, Illinois advanced.