PHOENIX (AP)Illinois started its two-game desert road trip in one of the rowdiest environments in college basketball.
Grand Canyon’s purple-clad ”Havocs” spent the game bouncing, clapping and screaming, making it hard for the Illini to even hear each other during timeouts.
Illinois survived the road havoc and now faces another, potentially tougher one at Arizona’s McKale Center.
Kofi Cockburn had 23 points and 14 rebounds, Andres Feliz added 21 points and Illinois pulled away late to beat Grand Canyon 83-61 Friday night.
”The homecourt atmosphere was everything it was rumored to be,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. ”I told our players one of the advantages of a homecourt advantage is not only getting the home team ready, but they’re so disruptive in terms of communication.”
Illinois (2-0) worked the ball inside to Cockburn early and that opened up the rest of the floor. The Illini led by four at halftime and stretched it to 14 with a big run to start the second half.
Riding the energy from one of college basketball’s best home crowds, Grand Canyon (0-2) kept it close in the first half and made a late run to cut the Illini’s lead to four.
Illinois kept the Antelopes at arm’s length from there to open a two-game trip to the desert with a win before facing No. 21 Arizona on Sunday
Grand Canyon spread the floor to make a late run and made 8 of 19 from 3-point range.
The Antelopes were no match for the Illini inside, outrebounded 52-26 while giving up 15 second-chance points on 20 offensive rebounds. Illinois also had a 44-32 advantage in the paint.
Isiah Brown led Grand Canyon with 18 points and Jovan Blacksher Jr. added 14.
”Disappointed, but really proud of my guys,” Grand Canyon coach Dan Majerle said. ”They played with a lot of passion and heart, they played hard. It was a big step up in what we played the first game.”
With 85% of their scoring back and a frenetic, turnover-producing defense, the Illini ratcheted up expectations entering their third season under Underwood.
Illinois instead got it off to an inauspicious start, needing overtime to beat Nicholls at home in its opener.
Grand Canyon got its seventh season under Majerle off to a shaky start, losing by 11 at home to Division II Davenport.
The Antelopes have their smallest team under Majerle, so it was no surprise they had trouble stopping Cockburn inside. The 7-foot Jamaican freshman powered his way past GCU defenders throughout the first half, scoring 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting and grabbing seven rebounds by halftime
”He’s an imposing figure,” Underwood said. ”We’ve got to take advantage of that and I thought tonight we did.”
When the Antelopes started closing in on Cockburn, Feliz took over, scoring 12 first-half points.
Grand Canyon kept pace from the 3-point arc, where it struggled in the opener. The Lopes made 5 of 9 in the first half – they were 2 for 19 against Davenport – to stay within 41-37 at halftime.
”I thought what did we needed to do early,” Underwood said. ”We got a little bit sloppy at the end of the first half when we really had a chance to really take the next step.”
Illinois hit its first six shots to open the second half on a 15-4 run, pushing the lead to 56-41.
The Antelopes kept Illinois from running away with it, hanging around before trimming the lead to 71-67 with four minutes left.
Grand Canyon couldn’t get any closer and had to play without Alessandro Lever after the center fouled out.
”Our guys expected to win this game, so there’s a lot of disappointment in that locker room,” Majerle said.
Illinois played better than its opener and a solid tuneup for the more difficult game of the road trip, at No. 21 Arizona on Saturday.
Grand Canyon had its hands full with Illinois’ size, but put up a better fight than it did in the opener.
FREE THROW WOES
Grand Canyon was good from the free throw line its opening loss, making 15 of 19. The Antelopes were not so good against Illinois, going 9 for 16.
”That’s something we can control and we have to be better,” Majerle said.
Illinois plays at No. 21 Arizona on Sunday.
Grand Canyon hosts San Diego State on Wednesday.
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