PHOENIX – GCU coach Dan Majerle wasn’t about to call it a victory, but simply getting Illinois into Grand Canyon Arena on Friday was just that.
The power conference teams usually won’t show up at mid- or low-major facilities… unless somebody like Jerry Colangelo calls.
The former Illinois standout and Phoenix Suns boss helped arrange Friday’s game at GCU, giving Illinois a chance to test itself in a rowdy road environment that required some late heroics to escape with a 83-71 win Friday.
Majerle only left with a few regrets: The loss, a punishing rebounding deficit (52-26) and the 16 fast-break points the Lopes allowed.
Oh, and one other thing: Former Suns standout Eddie Johnson, also a former Illinois standout, sat near the court pulling for the visitors.
“He was here wearing an Illini hat, and I gave him tickets,” Majerle said. “How does that work?”
Seriously, though, Majerle said it was “awesome” that Illinois was willing to play at GCU.
“It’s good, man. We always want people to come here,” Majerle said. “It’s a great place to play and our fans love it. They love basketball here. So yeah it was awesome to have Illinois here.”
Illinois coach Brad Underwood said he was glad to have the chance to play at GCU, too.
“It’s spectacular. It's spectacular,” Underwood said. “I'm a huge fan of extremely loud and the loudest place I've ever been was Allen Fieldhouse. … I mean the louder, the better.”
Besides, Underwood said, playing GCU and Arizona on the road to open the season was better than facing easier teams at home.
“There’s nothing worse than playing a bunch of patsies and getting a false sense of who you are,” Underwood said. “We're definitely not going to do that.”
The GCU series was already booked when he arrived before the 2017-18 season but Underwood said he added the Arizona game because he wanted to get another road test on the same trip.
“This is an NCAA Tournament type setting,” Underwood said, referring to the two games in three days. “Now granted we’ve got to get on a bus and go a couple hours it's the next opponent, and Sean (Miller) has been great and Arizona has been one of the elite programs for the last 30 years.
“We thought it was a great opportunity, knowing we were going to come west and Sean was a was willing to start a home and home series. And as we get ready to play two Big Ten games in December this gives us the opportunity to prepare our guys. As we go to open with Maryland on the road that won't be the first time and we won't be shell shocked.”
The Illini had their scary moments during the game, however. Illinois led 41-37 at halftime and, despite leading by up to 15 points in the second half, allowed the Lopes back in the game late.
GCU cut it to 71-67 with just over four minutes left before Illinois finally quieted down the sold-out crowd two minutes later when freshman 7-footer Kofi Cockburn dunked to give Illinois a 77-67 lead.
Cockburn finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds while Andres Feliz had 21 points on 7-for-14 shooting, getting inside with strength, confidence and speed.
“Andres down the stretch was sensational,” Underwood said.
Feliz, Trent Frazier and Ayo Dosunmo, who could have made a bid for the NBA Draft last spring, are combining this season for one of the Big Ten’s best backcourts and will be a key challenge for Arizona on Sunday.
Then again, Cockburn will be something else for Chase Jeter and Zeke Nnaji to play against, especially after facing NAU’s undersized post players on Wednesday.
Cockburn scored his 23 points on 8 for 12 shooting from the field – and by taking 13 trips to the free throw line, making seven of them. Much like Nnaji was against NAU, Cockburn was a focal point of Illinois’ offense because of the Lopes’ lack of comparable size inside.
“The thing that excites me about Kofi is he's got so much more to learn and so much more to garner in terms of his development,” Underwood said. “He's an imposing figure and we've got to be able to utilize that and take advantage of that and I thought tonight we did that. It was our game plan going in.”