Illinois, a No. 4 seed in the South, escapes Chattanooga

Coleman Hawkins blocked a shot and then rebounded when the last shot of the game misfired, boosting the fourth-seeded Illinois Fighting Illini to a 54-53 NCAA tournament South region victory over the No. 13 seeded Chattanooga Mocs.

Illinois led for only 25 seconds in the Round of 64 game played at Pittsburgh but managed to survive and advance to the R32. The Illini will play the No. 5 Houston Cougars on Sunday. The Cougars defeated the 12th-seeded UAB Blazers, 82-68.

Another victory would boost the Illini into a Sweet 16 game in San Antonio next week at the AT&T Center.

“It’s relief,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “It’s relief. I told (Chattanooga coach) Lamont (Paris) they played better than us. And we just happened to have more points than them at the end, and we led at the right time.

“But it’s also encouraging, and very encouraging to be very honest, to know that, let’s see, Trent Frazier is 0 for 6, (Andre) Curbelo is 1 of 7, Da’Monte (Williams) was 1 of 3, and (Alfonso) Plummer was 5 of 12.

“And to know that we’re really good shooting team, and you guys all sat there and watched us shoot yesterday. You know we’re a really good shooting team, and we had a bad day, Kofi (Cockburn) is 50 percent from the free throw line, and we found a way to win.

“We held them to 20 second half points.”

Hawkins, a 6-10 sophomore from Sacramento, came up with some big plays at the end to bail out a team that tied Wisconsin for first place in the Big Ten Conference’s regular-season race.

Chattanooga blasted out of the chute to take a 20-6 lead nine minutes into the game. An upset looked likely until Hawkins and Cockburn, an All-America center, helped rally the Illini.

With two minutes remaining, Hawkins ran the floor and took a lob pass from Trent Frazier that he dunked to bring Illinois within one point of the lead.

With 48 seconds left, Hawkins missed a free throw but Cockburn rebounded and tossed in an 8-footer in the lane, putting his team up 52-51 with 46 seconds left.

On the next possession, Chattanooga’s Malachi Smith was fouled, hit two free throws and boosted the Mocs back in front, 53-52.

Illinois came back down court and got the ball to 3-point specialist Alfonso Plummer on the perimeter. Plummer drove, drew contact and sank two free throws with 12 seconds left for the last points of the game.

Trying to win on the last possession, Chattanooga went to Smith who drove and hoisted a shot that was blocked by Hawkins.

Smith retrieved the ball and shot again but missed. Hawkins snared the game-clinching rebound, and the final horn sounded.

It was sweet relief for fans of the Illini, who suffered last year when their team had an elite team and a No. 1 seed and was beaten by Loyola-Chicago in the second round.