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Arizona men’s basketball rallies to win at Illinois, remain unbeaten

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-recap-illinois-fighting-illini-unbeaten-pac12-big-ten-2021 Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Neither plane re-routing nor 2-hour Uber rides nor a partisan crowd on the road could keep Arizona from staying unbeaten.

The Wildcats rallied from down 13 points in the first half to win 83-79 at Illinois on Saturday afternoon, moving to 9-0 on the season and firmly establishing itself as a team to be paid attention to.

Bennedict Mathurin scored a season-high 30 points and Kerr Kriisa had 17 of his career-best 19 in the second half as the UA withstood a 19-0 run in the first half and lights-out 3-point shooting all game from Illinois.

Mathurin was 10 of 17 from the field and 5 of 8 from 3-point range, adding seven rebounds, while Kriisa made 7 of 16 shots and also had a career-high eight rebounds and five assists. Arizona had a season-low 12 assists but made up for it with 16 offensive rebounds that led to 16 seconds-chance points.

The Wildcats also scored 25 points off 16 Illinois turnovers, recording 10 steals for the fourth time this season.

Illinois (7-3) made 16 3-pointers, most by a UA opponent since Oregon hit 16 in 2017, with guards Trent Frazier (27) and Utah transfer Alfonso Plummer (25) hitting six 3s apiece. Kofi Cockburn had 13 points and 13 rebounds but was just 5 of 15 from the field, the 7-footer unable to dominate thanks to Christian Koloko’s defense, which produced four blocks and three steals.

A sold out crowd at State Farm Center in Champaign saw Arizona use a late 7-0 run to pull away, with Azuolas Tubelis’ drive with 2:24 to go putting the Wildcats up for good at 77-76. Mathurin scored on a 3-on-1 off a steal to up the lead to 3 with 1:55 left, then Mathurin and Kriisa combined to make 4 of 6 free throws in the final 22 seconds to ice it.

The UA trailed 42-38 at halftime, rebounding from a 13-point hole by outscoring Illinois 14-5 over the final seven minutes of the first half. The Wildcats scored the first five points of the second half to retake the lead, with the Illini going back up 50-45 before Arizona broke off 12 straight to lead 57-50 with 12:18 left.

The run included back-to-back 3-pointers by Kriisa and Mathurin’s fifth triple.

A 3-pointer by Frazier got Illinois within 59-56, then eight in a row from Plummer put the Illini up 64-61 with 9:25 left. Kriisa responded with six straight of his own to put the Wildcats ahead 67-64 with 7:50 to go.

Back-to-back baskets by Cockburn—Illinois’ first two 2-pointers since the 3:30 mark of the first half—put it back up 68-67. The Illini went inside to Cockburn on four straight possessions, with the big man drawing fouls on the last two, but he only made 1 of 4 free throws.

Arizona responded with a 6-0 run but at the tail end Tubelis missed two free throws, which was followed by a Plummer 3 to cut the Wildcats’ lead to 73-72. Illinois’ last lead, at 76-75, came with 2:35 left on two Cockburn free throws, but the Fighting Illini only made one more field goal after that.

Arizona—which had to Uber the entire team from Indianapolis on Friday night after its charter flight couldn’t land in Champaign because of inclement weather—jumped out to a 10-3 start, making five of its first seven shots, but along the way it got into foul trouble. Dalen Terry picked up two fouls in the first 137 seconds, then Pelle Larsson got his second with 12:07 left in the first half.

The Wildcats were able to overcome that for a while, leading 19-13 with 12:19 left thanks to seven consecutive points from Tubelis, who had 16 points and eight rebounds, before Illinois caught fire.

The Illini went on a 19-0 run to lead 37-24 with 7:01 left in the first, the first 11 coming from Frazier in a 92-second span. He’d been scoreless before that, with Plummer scoring 11 in the first eight minutes to make up for him.

Arizona scored 10 in a row to get within 37-34 with 3:47 left, including a 4-point play when Mathurin hit a floater and then nailed a pair of free throws after Illinois’ Da’Monte Williams was hit with a technical for scrapping with Tubelis under the basket.

Larsson got his third foul with 2:44 left in the first half, getting called for Arizona’s third charge, and Illinois built the lead back to eight before the Wildcats scored the final two baskets to trail 42-38 at the break.

Arizona is back home Wednesday to face Northern Colorado, part of a 2-game homestand before playing the next four on the road.