PITTSBURGH — For the second straight season, Illinois men's basketball's NCAA tournament run ended in the second round.
Turnovers and being beat on the glass were the main culprits for the No. 4-seed Illini, who suffered a 68-53 loss to No. 5-seed Houston in the Round of 32 on Sunday at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.
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That meant another year of being a top-four seed and winning a conference title came and went without getting out of the NCAA Tournament's first weekend.
"We fell short," Kofi Cockburn said. "Games like these you can't really -- there is not much -- you can't really put it in words. It's a hard feeling going through this for another year."
Illinois had seven of its 17 turnovers on out of bounds plays and the Cougars had 15 offensive rebounds, leading to 31 points for Houston off offensive rebounds or Illinois turnovers.
That was too much of a burden for the team to overcome with another rough shooting night.
"We turned the ball over 17 times, got outrebounded, gave up a boatload of offensive rebounds which gave them a lot of opportunities," coach Brad Underwood said. "When you combine turnovers with offensive rebounds, and the fact that they got nine more field goal attempts than us, it stretches your offense."
The Illini started the night 4-for-19 from the field and 1-for-9 from 3. Then freshmen RJ Melendez and Luke Goode entered the game.
Their offensive boost was the reason the game didn't get out of hand in a hurry. Illinois had 11 points in first 14:44 without Goode, and 15 points in final 5:15 of the first half with him after he checked in and hit a couple of big 3s.
Both freshmen were on court for a 15-7 run to end first half. Melendez finished with nine points and three assists and Goode finished with six points and five rebounds.
A Trent Frazier 3 put Illinois within four at halftime and finished with eight points in his final game for the Illini.
Melendez got a breakaway dunk with 8:40 left to pull the team within four, but was called with a technical for hanging on the rim. Illinois was outscored 22-11 the rest of the game.
Melendez wanted to land safely on two feet instead of flying past the baseline and landing on one. He said he wasn't given an explanation for the technical.
"It is deflating," Underwood said. "You make a play, it changes the momentum of the game. And have that called in the moment? I can't wait to see it. He told me he shouldn't ever have called it, but in the moment he calls it.
"Maybe it's personal, I don't know. When a kid has a full head of steam going 100 miles an hour, and we all talk about safety and well-being of student-athletes, come on. And then to kill momentum like that? Horrible."
Cockburn was the only consistent offensive presence for the Illini with 19 points and eight rebounds in what could be his final collegiate game if he declares for the NBA Draft.
"It hurts really bad, especially for the guys that's leaving," Cockburn said. "We always want to leave with, like, with a good -- with a good feeling, you know? We don't want to leave the freshman and the younger guys with a bad feeling, so it definitely sucks that we lost. We fell short. Can't really put it into words."
Andre Curbelo was scoreless and shot 0-for-4 from the field in 10 minutes. He had one assist and two turnovers and didn't play the entire second half. Underwood said not playing Curbelo in the second half was a "coach's decision".
Illinois shot under 40% for the third straight game, making the 38.8% from the field it shot against Chattanooga was the best mark of the postseason. The Illini were a combined 17-for-64 (26.6%) from 3 in the postseason.
"We got great shots, we just couldn't make them," Underwood said. "We weren't making them. It frustrating to put yourself into a position to make wide -- we made really good plays. We just missed shots."
Now Illinois looks toward the future with Coleman Hawkins, Goode, Melendez and Curbelo all likely returning. Jacob Grandison could return for an extra season of COVID eligibility.
If Grandison and Cockburn leave, the team will lose all five members of its starting lineup for most of the season. That core gave the team a Big Ten Tournament title last season and a regular season crown this year.
"These days are never fun," Underwood said. "It means, you know, the end to a great season, to a championship season, and we don't want to lose sight of any of that in that locker room."
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