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Spark From Mike Saunders Jr. Leads Cincinnati Past Illinois

Cincinnati may have come into Monday’s game with a 4-0 record, but they were still looking for their first signature win of the season. While a five-point college basketball win over Georgia is nothing to scoff at, their other three opponents have left plenty to be desired in terms of helping the Bearcats strengthen an early tournament resume. Cincinnati had a tough matchup with Kofi Cockburn and 14th-ranked Illinois in a game pitting the AAC against the Big Ten.

While Cockburn and the Fighting Illini were rolling early, Jeremiah Davenport and the Cincinnati Bearcats dug deep on their way to a 71-51 win. With this matchup looking like two completely different games, let’s break down a big win for the Cincinnati basketball team.

Mike Saunders Jr. cincinnati basketball college
Credit: Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Cincinnati Takes Down Ranked Illinois College Basketball Team

Mike Saunders Jr. Lights it Up

Everybody knows what Jeremiah Davenport can do for this Cincinnati basketball team. What was a little less expected is what kind of role Mike Saunders Jr. can make every night. Against Illinois, Saunders was absolutely electric, contributing 20 points along with four rebounds. Outside of a big game against Alabama A&M, Saunders had been held to seven or fewer points in the other three games for the Bearcats.

While Saunders didn’t take many shots, he made a living at the free throw line. Saunders only made five shots, but he cashed in on nine of his 10 free throw attempts. He was relentless in attacking the paint, and once he had the ball running downhill, Illinois had no answer. The sophomore from Indianapolis set a new career-high in points and was the catalyst for this Bearcats offense. If Saunders can consistently attack the paint like he did tonight, Cincinnati will be a tough matchup for any team in the country.

Cincinnati Defense Answers the Bell

The Fighting Illini had far from their best game offensively, in all fairness. At one point, Illinois missed 18 consecutive three-point attempts. A lot of the credit still needs to be attributed to a stifling Bearcats defense. Cincinnati held Illinois to just 28% from the field and 13% from behind the arc. In addition to forcing tough shots for Illinois, Cincinnati also forced Illinois into 14 turnovers.

One of the biggest questions coming into this game was how Cincinnati would stop Kofi Cockburn. While Cockburn was feasting to begin the game, first-year head coach Wes Miller made a key adjustment. Miller called a timeout with 12 minutes left in the first half, facing a 23-8 deficit. Cincinnati started to swarm Cockburn whenever he touched the ball, and the strategy certainly paid off. Illinois scored just 28 points in the final 32 minutes. With plenty of high-powered offenses in the AAC, Cincinnati will need nightly performances like this to contend for the title.

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