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In a battle of the big men, Nance matches Cockburn, yet Cockburn’s team prevails

It was quite the impressive showing for each team’s center.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Going into Saturday’s game between Northwestern and No. 24 Illinois, almost everyone knew the two stars to watch would be Pete Nance and Kofi Cockburn.

However, very few people expected them both to carry the offensive loads of their respective teams in the ways that they did. Nance finished the game with 21 points and five rebounds on 8-for-15 shooting. Cockburn, meanwhile, concluded with 22 points and nine rebounds on 10-for-17 shooting. Both players were the only ones to score above 10 points in the game.

By the end of the game, the Wildcats fell just short, losing 59-56 in a game that was a microcosm of Northwestern’s season as a whole. That’s a story that’s been told over and over again. The more surprising result was how Nance kept pace with Cockburn throughout the game and almost outdid him when it was all said and done.

“Kofi’s gonna score, but he took 17 shots to score 20 points,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said postgame. “That’s a good job. Our defense couldn’t have been any better. We couldn’t have fought any harder on the defensive end.”

Collins isn’t wrong. The Wildcats did play great defense. Their offense, however, was a different story. The first half for the ‘Cats was a nightmare offensively; they finished it with 19 points scored, their fewest in a half this year, and were shooting 6-for-26 after the first 20 minutes of action. The exception to that was Nance. While he did shoot just 3-for-7 in the first half — a line that wasn’t anything special — he had nine points in 13 minutes played.

On the other end, the Illini had a quieter-than-usual first half as well. They were unsurprisingly led by Cockburn, who had eight points and shot 50 percent through the first 20 minutes. Trent Frazier added six points of his own to give Illinois a five-point advantage at halftime.

The second half was when each big man came into their own. Without much of a supporting cast for either player, Nance shot 5-for-8 in the second half and scored 12 points. He also sunk two clutch threes. Cockburn, meanwhile, had 14 second half points on 6-of-9 shooting. He tormented multiple NU bigs down low, from Nance himself to Ryan Young to Elyjah Williams to Matt Nicholson.

While Nance and Cockburn both had large impacts on the game, it was the supporting casts that ended up deciding the game. Sure, outside of those two bigs, no one really had an impressive game besides maybe Ryan Greer, who made a few good plays here and there and managed to outplay Frazier at times. However, the plays made by those who weren’t Nance and Cockburn was the difference between the two teams. NU didn’t have a player to go to outside of Nance when the team needed a bucket. Illinois did. The scoreboard reflects that more than anything else.

There’s something that has to be said about the lack of help that Nance has. He’s a legitimate NBA prospect, one of the first that Northwestern has had in a long time. With that in mind, it’s almost remarkable how the Wildcats have managed to waste a program-altering talent like Nance. Even more than that, it’s gut-wrenching to think that he’ll now likely never even get close to being on an NCAA Tournament team. Regardless of that, he’s still optimistic and he’s still supporting his teammates.

“We’ve all put in a lot of time and effort to just give up and quit,” Nance said postgame. “Who’s to say we can’t flip the script and win eight out of our next 10? We know we’re close, we know we’re a good team. We’ve worked too hard to not get over the hump. I think we deserve it.”

It’s an admirable sentiment, even if it may be rooted in wishful thinking. The good news for the ‘Cats is the schedule now lets up a bit after their gauntlet of a January. Rutgers rolls into town on Tuesday, February 1, and then the team will take a trip to Lincoln on February 5 to face Nebraska. The bad news is they still have to face Indiana, Illinois and No. 6 Purdue three games in a row. Going 8-2 in their next 10 games is a tough task, but in theory, nothing’s impossible.

With the way things are trending, though, it’s far easier said than done.

“You have to keep coming to the drawing board, you have to stay confident even though it’s hard,” Collins said. “We don’t like where we are, we think we’ve played better than what our record says, but you are what you earn.”