Illinois battles Maryland for first place in the Big Ten

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Some losses have a way of sticking to a basketball team like glue. They’re the kinds of losses that can’t even be completely washed away by winning seven-of-eight games for a share of first place in the crowded Big Ten.

Perhaps not everything from those losses needs to be wiped away. The Illinois men’s basketball team (16-6, 8-3) carries plenty from a Dec. 7 conference-opening loss at Maryland, where it led by 15 points in the second half before the lead slowly trickled down and Maryland guard Anthony Cowan Jr. hit a game-winning 3-pointer.

“It’s there,” sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu said. “We didn’t forget. We remember how we were in the locker room. We remember the feeling. It stuck with us.”

It was a lesson in the books of closing out games, and the Illini studied up after that. Illinois slammed the door on Wisconsin, Rutgers, Northwestern, Purdue, Michigan and Minnesota.

Dosunmu is smart enough to know that most games in the Big Ten come down to the home stretch, the precious final five minutes. Illinois gets another crack at Maryland to right that late-game lapse at 7 p.m. Friday, when No. 9 Maryland (18-4, 8-3) comes to Champaign (FS1) with a five-game winning streak. The winner will have a one-game lead in the Big Ten.

“I want them to play for first,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said. “I think (Mark Turgeon’s) got his team probably ready to play for first, or (Michigan State coach) Tom (Izzo), or (Iowa coach) Fran (McCaffery), or (Penn State coach) Pat (Chambers) or whoever. It’s what we do. We’re playing to win this game. It just happens to be right now the two teams that are tied for first and the winner gets sole possession.”

This is the latest Illinois has been in first place in the conference since Feb. 13, 2010.

“I mean, the competitiveness in us knows what’s at stake,” Dosunmu said. “I would be lying to you if I said it was just a regular game. At the same time, we don’t want to get too high or get too low. We want to play how we play. We don’t want to come out with too many emotions and then get off our game plan, but we still come into the game knowing its a big game.”

There’s a difference about Illinois this time around against Maryland. Underwood called the first game against Maryland a “growth game,” and said the team has turned the ball over less and bought in on defense more.

“I think that loss opened up a lot of people’s eyes,” freshman center Kofi Cockburn said. “We realized what we could do with that loss because everybody knows we were up and they came back and pulled one out. It was a tough one, but we realized what we could do and how good we could become.”

Said Underwood: “I think we’re better in every aspect of the game.”

Thing is, Maryland has changed, too. The Terrapins are bombing 3-pointers at a high clip, shooting 31.7 percent in Big Ten games. At the center of Maryland is 6-foot-10 sophomore Jalen Smith and his 15.2 points and 10 rebounds per game. He’s blocked 11 shots in his last two games and is shooting 51.3 percent on his 3-pointers in conference play.

It’s yet another test for Cockburn, who had nine points and eight rebounds against Maryland in the first meeting, but struggled in Illinois’ loss to Iowa on Sunday.

“The same way we looked at it last time, just coming out here, executing and making sure that we lock in on defense,” Cockburn said. “It’s always about defense with us. We’ve spent a lot of time going over stuff and watching what they do best and are really dedicated to coming out and playing hard and coming away with the win.”

Illinois’ strength is defense, whether it’s trying to slow down Smith, Iowa standout Luka Garza or Michigan State standout Cassius Winston. Underwood says the team’s defense has improved since the first meeting against Maryland.

Dosunmu says everything has improved since that loss.

“Just a better version of us,” Dosunmu said. “Better defensively, the way we communicate with each other, just better swag. Just a totally different team.”

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