CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – No. 11 Arizona used tough defense to outlast Illinois 83-79 on Saturday and stay undefeated.
Bennedict Mathurin led the Wildcats with 27 points. Trailing the Illini by one with 2:22 to play, Arizona’s Azuolas Tubelis capitalized on an offensive rebound by putting in a layup. On the next possession, Christian Koloko forced an Illinois turnover, and Mathurin scored an easy layup to make it 79-76 with 1:55 to go.
Mathurin opened the game by making 3 of 4 attempts from 3-point range, and finished 10 of 16 from the field and five made 3s for Arizona (9-0). Sophomore guard Kerr Kriisa added 19 points, eight rebounds and four assists, while Tubelis had 16 points and eight rebounds.
“We were battling every second of the game, and it came down to little turnovers, little stops and we managed to do it better,” Kriisa said. “I think that was the key to winning.”
Arizona outscored Illinois 42-16 in the paint, limiting center Kofi Cockburn to a season-worst 5 of 15 shooting mark. Mathurin credited the Wildcats’ defensive performance, especially Tubelis and Koloko, who scored four points and had seven rebounds.
“We have the best bigs in the country,” Mathurin said. “I don’t want to be like that, but in practice, we (are) working really hard. Our bigs are pretty comfortable, our game plan was pretty good and I just feel like we had the right game plan to get him out of the game.”
For Illinois (7-3), guard Trent Frazier led his team with 27 points on 9 of 15 shooting, going 6 of 11 from deep. Alfonso Plummer followed closely behind, adding 25 points, and Cockburn had a game-high 12 rebounds.
“It was bareknuckle boxing,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. “It was knock-down, drag-out, and we knew it was going to be. I think we’re built for those, and I think we get a little experience playing in those and it’s really going to help us and make us better.”
Frazier scored 11 straight points in the first half during a 19-0 Illini run, which was capped by a steal and a coast-to-coast layup for a 37-24 lead at the seven-minute mark. But Arizona closed the first half on a 14-5 run, trailing 42-38 at the break after a Mathurin layup with 23 seconds left.
The Wildcats had to make an unexpected landing in Indianapolis on Friday night instead of flying into the University of Illinois’ Willard Airport due to tornadoes and severe weather. The team had to be driven the roughly two hours to Champaign.
Arizona: The Wildcats now have two wins over Big Ten opponents, and look poised to finish the nonconference slate without any blemishes – although they have to play at No. 13 Tennessee on Dec. 22.
Illinois: Had won five straight games before Saturday’s loss.
Arizona: Hosts Northern Colorado on Wednesday.
Illinois: Hosts Saint Francis (Pa.) on Saturday.