What a difference three years makes. In December 2010, when Illinois players walked off the United Center floor after their game against UIC, the Illini were showered with boos and expletives from their own fans who were disgusted with a 57-54 defeat at the hands of Howard Moore’s Flames.
CHICAGO — What a difference three years makes. In December 2010, when Illinois players walked off the United Center floor after their game against UIC, the Illini were showered with boos and expletives from their own fans who were disgusted with a 57-54 defeat at the hands of Howard Moore’s Flames.
On Saturday, when Tracy Abrams, Joseph Bertrand and Rayvonte Rice were lifted from the game in the final minute, the Illini leading by 13 in a game they would win 74-60, the 13,017 at the United Center gave them a standing ovation. Rice and Groce shared a bear hug in front of the Illinois bench.
Illinois did what it was supposed to do: It beat UIC. Order has been restored.
“I lost to them last time we were here my freshman year, so I kind of told them how it was going to be and they were going to be ready to play,” said Bertrand, the only member of the current UI team who was on the roster the last time these two teams played.
But the way things started Saturday, it appeared that a repeat of the 2010 disaster was in order. Led by Purdue transfer Kelsey Barlow, the Flames (5-9) jumped to a 13-point first-half lead and led 44-34 at the break. Barlow scored 18 of his 21 points in the opening 20 minutes, scoring at will against a bevy of Illini defenders.
“Barlow was terrific in the first half; we really didn’t have much of an answer for him,” Groce said. “I thought it was a heck of a performance by him; my hat’s off to him and to Howard for having those kids ready to play.”
“We probably played our best half of basketball at the beginning,” Moore said.
There was no screaming and shouting in the Illinois locker room despite the early returns. Illini players remained calm, talked among themselves, listened to a few halftime adjustments from the coaching staff and opened the second half on an 8-0 spurt and extended it to 31-11, taking a 10-point lead and never looking back.
“I thought we came to play, but we didn’t come to fight,” Groce said.
“They came out and threw the first punch,” Rice said. “We stayed calm, got our team together and came out on top (Saturday).”
Illinois (11-2) was able to avoid a season-changing loss to the Flames thanks in large part to Rice, who scored 16 of his game-high 28 points in the second half.
But as good as he was offensively, Rice might have been even more outstanding for the Illini on the defensive end, limiting Barlow to three points on 1-of-7 shooting.
“It was maybe one of his more complete performances of the year,” Groce said of Rice.
There was plenty of doubt whether Rice, who scored 983 points in two years at Drake, could match that production at the Big Ten level. With conference play beginning Tuesday against Indiana, the question will be answered more clearly, but Moore, a former Big Ten assistant, already knows the answer.
“I think he’ll translate very well. I remember seeing him in high school, and I always thought he was a Big Ten player,” the former Wisconsin assistant said. “He’s going to be a handful. He’s going to be a great player in the Big Ten.”
Abrams added 16 points for the Illini, and Bertrand had 14. But Rice, the Champaign product, was all anyone wanted to talk about afterward.
“It’s great (to watch), just let him get in his groove,” Bertrand said. “He can score in a lot of ways, and that really helps our team and opens up the court for everybody else when he can get to the basket like that.”
And instead of a two-plus-hour bus ride back to campus following an inexcusable defeat, the Illini celebrated in the United Center stands with their friends and family, who were rushed out of the arena to make way for the Bulls’ game a few hours later.
“It’s definitely different (this year), especially being in Chicago, playing in front of your family,” Bertrand said. “That’s one of the big reasons it’s an important game for us.”