KANSAS CITY, Mo. — What began as a glorious return for Kofi Cockburn stunningly transformed into a salvage mission for the University of Illinois basketball team Monday at the Hall of Fame Classic.
And as the Illini misfired on shot after shot, there was little left to salvage in a 71-51 thrashing at the hands of Cincinnati at the T-Mobile Center.
Rocketing to an early 15-point lead with Cockburn giving off an air of invincibility, Illinois missed 24 of 27 shots over one stretch and meekly dropped to 2-2.
The Illini, who dropped four spots to No. 14 in the national rankings after last week’s one-point loss to Marquette, faced former Illinois coach Bruce Weber at 6 p.m. on Tuesday in the event’s consolation game.
“No doubt we were off-kilter on the offensive side,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “We’re not playing with any confidence, we’re not screening. Our ability to be assignment sound has not been very good.”
Despite hitting 9 of its first 16 shots, the Illini finished at 28 percent (16 of 57) from the field. That’s an almost unfathomable 17 percent (7 of 41) after the hot start.
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“We’ll get it right, but tonight was ugly. That was hard to watch,” said Underwood. “Give Cincinnati credit. They played harder than we did, and that’s very unacceptable for me to stomach. It’s about being connected, about being together as a cohesive group. We’re not that, especially at the offensive end.”
The Illini shot out to a 23-8 lead with Cockburn scoring 12. It was the first game of Cockburn’s season after serving a three-game NCAA suspension.
But when Cincinnati emerged from its second timeout at the 11:55 mark, a new breed of Bearcats returned to the floor.
“Our intensity and level of play went up as a group to get the job done,” said guard Jeremiah Davenport, who finished with 19 points and seven rebounds.
Illinois turned cold as the Bearcats moved within 24-22 on a Davenport 3-pointer and seized a 30-29 edge when Vicktor Lahkin put back his own missed shot.
Cincinnati carried a 34-31 margin into halftime.
It got worse – much worse – for the Illini after the break.
After a Cockburn basket brought Illinois within 39-35, the Illini missed their next 10 shots and mustered only an Austin Hutcherson free throw over a span of nearly 10 minutes to allow the Bearcats to pad their advantage to 56-36.
“I’m excited for our guys and excited for our program,” Cincinnati coach Wes Miller said. “The first time on a national stage, I thought our guys performed well. I didn’t like how we started the game, but we really started trying to guard and play the right way. I’m really proud of our defensive effort.”
An Illini team that rattled off 23 points over the initial 8:04 needed more than 29 minutes to score their next 23.
“We’ve got to keep fighting. Every night the ball is not going to drop in the hoop,” said Illinois guard Da’Monte Williams. “We have to keep coming together and stay together through times like that.”
Cockburn ended with 18 points and seven rebounds. Andre Curbelo was the only other Illini in double figures with 12 points. Williams came off the bench to snare a team-high 10 rebounds.
Bearcats’ guard Mike Saunders Jr. gave Illinois fits off the bench with 20 points. He drew six fouls and converted 9 of 10 at the foul line.
“If we play hard for 40 minutes, teams are going to tap out,” Saunders said, “and that’s what happened today.”
Trent Frazier and Jacob Grandison, Illinois’ top two scorers entering the contest, combined to miss all 12 of their shots and score one point.
Contact Randy Reinhardt at (309) 820-3403. Follow him on Twitter: pg_reinhardt