A Night Under The Stars
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On the night Ayo Dosunmu was back in Champaign to see his jersey raised to the rafters of the State Farm Center, there was also the small detail of a Big Ten Conference basketball game that needed to be played, and the first half of said game was admittedly a bit of a buzz kill.
Kofi Cockburn sat for the final 10 minutes of the half after picking up two fouls, and at the break the Illini trailed Maryland 34-30. Ultimately, though, it was fitting. Halftime belonged to Ayo Dosunmu and the rest of the night belonged to Kofi Cockburn. Those first half struggles merely served to establish the correct order of things.
First Ayo, then Kofi.
In October of 2017, Brad Underwood had yet to coach a game for Illinois. The program had aimlessly wandered the college basketball landscape for well over a decade, and yet there was Dosunmu walking out of a back room at the Nike Jordan Brand store in downtown Chicago wearing a white polo emblazoned with a blue Block I emblem to breathe sweet life into the Illinois brand.
Yet in Ayo's first season, despite some noteworthy flashes of the late game assassin he would become (The "This Won't End Well" sequence in the win against Michigan State followed up a week later by a win at Ohio State), we lost a school record 21 games. He needed a little help. What he got was some BIG help.
One of those 21 losses that season was to something called Florida Atlantic. On that frigid day in late December 2018, one Kofi Cockburn was in attendance - on his official recruiting visit to Champaign. Here's a dude from Jamaica sitting in a half full State Farm Center in the dead of winter watching us lose to the 162nd rated (per KenPom) team in college basketball. Well, so much for that right?
Yet one week later Kofi committed to Illinois (a couple of hours after a loss to Northwestern I might add). Here's to you Orlando Antigua.
And just like that, a foundation was in place. Over the next two seasons, that foundation became the bedrock of a team that would win 32 Big Ten Conference games and earn a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament
Ayo would become college basketball's most feared closer of games and was named a First Team All-American last season thus earning the honor of having his jersey ascended to the State Farm Center's heavens.
So with Ayo's entire family and his Chicago Bulls teammate DeMar DeRozan on hand and after an emotional ceremony which included video well wishes from current and former team members and coaches - including Andres Feliz and Orlando Antigua - the familiar white #11 was raised to the roof.
Then just as he did at the end of last season, he walked off the floor and allowed Kofi to pick up where he left off.
Tonight was quintessential Kofi. After playing just 8 minutes in the first half after picking up two fouls, he played the entire 20 minutes in the second half and racked up 16 points and 15 rebounds in those 20 minutes alone. He finished the 76-64 Illinois win with 23 points and a career high tying 18 rebounds. But those stats don't even tell the full story.
Before Kofi's second foul at the 10:00 minute mark, Illinois had built up a 21-7 first half lead. Maryland then finished the half on a 27-9 run with Kofi on the bench. The second half margin was 46-30. In plus/minus terms, Kofi ended the game at an eye-popping +28. IN A 12 POINT GAME. We can talk another day about what the Kofi-less struggles could portend for this team down the road, but tonight we should just bask in Kofi's greatness. He fouled out both of Maryland's big guys, and by the end of the game it wasn't even fair. We kept missing shots and Kofi kept grabbing the offensive rebound and dunking on hapless Terrapins.
He's a cheat code.
One of my favorite things to do this season has been to hunt down quotes from opposing coaches after they've faced Kofi.
Notre Dame's Mike Brey: "He's such a physical specimen. There's nothing like him in college basketball."
Kansas State's Bruce Weber: "You know Kofi's going to get his inside. He's just a monster."
Minnesota's Ben Johnson: "If anyone can figure out how to guard that guy, let me know."
Barring injury, Kofi will finish the year again as an All-American - joining Dee Brown as the only Illinois players in the modern era to receive such honors in back to back seasons. He too has a future date for a jersey hanging ceremony of his own.
These two greats will forever be synonymous with the resurgence of Illinois basketball. Like all legends, no last names will be required. They will need only be called by first names alone. Ayo and Kofi. Kofi and Ayo.
Not just because they were such a dynamic duo on the floor, but also because both took the path less traveled and bought into the promise of what could be. They each took a chance on Illinois. Their decisions kickstarted the program's journey back from the depths of irrelevance, and their on-court performance over the past two seasons has made Illini basketball appointment viewing once more.
I'm not sure what else there is to say other than to point out the obvious. We've been ridiculously lucky to watch these two all time greats. Maybe it's just me, but I feel like to some that COVID and the Loyola loss dulled the legacy of these two, but they were and are generational talents on the floor and deserve extra credit for putting Illinois basketball back on the map.
Ayo and Kofi. Kofi and Ayo. Together they revitalized Illinois basketball. Tonight they both shined brightly.