PITTSBURGH — Alfonso Plummer scored 15 points, including the go-ahead free throws with 12 seconds to go, and fourth-seeded Illinois escaped 13th-seeded Chattanooga 54-53 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
The Big Ten co-champion Illini (23-9) never led until the final minute and survived when Chattanooga star Malachi Smith missed twice in the closing seconds. His runner in the lane was swatted by Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins and his pull-up jumper just before the clock expired clanged off the rim.
Illinois will play either fifth-seeded Houston or 12th-seeded UAB on Sunday in a South Region second-round game.
Illinois All-America center Kofi Cockburn had 17 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks. His putback gave the Illini a 52-51 lead with 48 seconds to go. Smith, the Southern Conference Player of the Year, responded by drilling a pair of free throws to put Chattanooga back in front.
Plummer, who hit three 3-pointers to help Illinois climb back from an 11-point second-half deficit, drove the left side and was fouled. He knocked down both shots. Chattanooga, with Pro Football Hall of Fame alum Terrell Owens urging the Mocs on, declined to call timeout.
The ball ended up in Smith’s hands twice, but unlike their thriller in the Southern Conference Tournament final – which ended with a game-winning 30-foot heave by David Jean-Baptiste – there would be no last-second heroics.
Chattanooga’s attempt to win its first game in the tournament since 1997 – when it was a 14 seed and knocked off Illinois on the way to the Sweet 16 – ended when Hawkins grabbed his eighth and final rebound.
Chattanooga coach Lamont Paris promised to throw multiple bodies at Cockburn in an effort to keep the 7-footer in check. It worked early, as the Mocs harassed him nearly every time down the floor.
It led to a lot of pushing, a lot of shoving and – for a while – a lot of fouls. Josh Ayeni and Silvio De Sousa each drew three whistles in the first half alone. Cockburn struggled to take advantage, missing 5 of 8 free throws early before he and the Illini started to get into a rhythm after the Mocs were forced to go small.
Chattanooga led by as much as 12 but Illinois closed the half on a 13-6 surge, with six of the points coming from Cockburn, who let out a scream at one point after swatting a layup attempt by Darius Banks.
The Mocs recovered to take a 40-29 lead early in the second half but a 10-0 run by the Illini – fueled by a pair of 3-pointers by Plummer – set up a taut if not exactly pretty final 10 minutes.