March Madness: Illinois fends off UT Chattanooga after trailing until game's final minute

·3 min read

Illinois trailed from the opening tip until the game's final minute on Friday.

But it led when it counted, riding late Alfonso Plummer free throws to a 54-53 win to fend off an upset bid by No. 13 seed UT Chattanooga in the men's NCAA tournament.

The Illini trailed by 20-7 to open the game and allowed the Mocs to open the second half on a 7-0 run to extend their lead to 40-29 lead after halftime. But they battled back throughout the second half and took their first lead at 52-51 on a Kofi Cockburn jumper with 46 seconds remaining.

The Mocs responded to retake the lead 14 seconds later. But a pair of Plummer free throws with 12 seconds left gave Illinois the lead for good.

Malachi Smith's last-ditch look for the Mocs missed the mark, and the Illini survived to play another day.

In total, UT Chattanooga led for 39:35 on Friday. Illinois led for 25 seconds, including the moment the game clock hit :00.

Former UT Chattanooga football player Terrell Owens was the team's biggest cheerleader on Friday. But he could only watch the game's final moments in disappointment.

Plummer set up the game-winning free throws with a late drive to the basket as Chattanooga led 53-52. When he went up for a layup, Chattanooga's Silvio De Sousa made late contact out of position, picking up his fourth foul.

Plummer, an 87.8% free throw shooter, calmly sank both shots to secure the game's final margin. The junior transfer from Utah finished with 15 points while connecting on 3-of-8 3-point attempts.

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 18: Alfonso Plummer #11 of the Illinois Fighting Illini reacts after making a three point shot in the second half against the Chattanooga Mocs during the first round of the 2022 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament held at PPG PAINTS Arena on March 18, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Alfonso Plummer's free throws sealed the win for Illinois on Friday. (Justin K. Aller/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Cockburn, a first-team All-Big Ten honoree, led Illinois with 17 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots. No bucket or rebound was bigger than his putback jumper of a missed Coleman Hawkins free throw with 47.1 seconds remaining to give Illinois its first lead at 52-51.

Smith led Chattanooga with 14 points, but shot 5-of-21 from the field to get there. De Sousa finished with six points, four rebounds and four fouls. He sat the final 6:55 of the first half after picking up his third foul with a reach-in away from the basket. Chattanooga was leading 22-10 at the time. Illinois closed the half on a 19-11 run from there to cut its deficit to 33-29.

For Chattanooga, the loss marks a disappointing end to an exciting NCAA tournament bid it earned in thrilling fashion with a David Jean-Baptiste buzzer beater to win the Southern Conference championship. For Illinois, it advances to the second round to face the winner between Houston and UAB.