Even though Illinois and Clemson tipped off Sunday morning, Littlejohn Coliseum was full.
CLEMSON, S.C. — About 90 minutes before Sunday’s second-round game between second-seeded Illinois and third-seeded Clemson was set to begin, Tigers coach Brad Brownell was making his way to Littlejohn Coliseum. What he saw surprised him.
“At 9:30 this morning, there was a line all the way to the street and I had goosebumps on my neck because I was proud to see that kind of support for our program,” Brownell said. “It means a lot.”
When the Tigers hosted Georgia State on Tuesday, the official attendance inside the 10,000-seat Littlejohn was 3,859.
On a Sunday morning in the NIT, no one knew what to expect for a crowd.
Early in the first half of Sunday’s game, the public address announcer pleaded with fans to squeeze in so that the folks still entering the arena could have a seat.
By late in the half it was announced that the building was at capacity.
On a Sunday morning at the end of spring break, the football school sold out a basketball game.
“I’d like to thank our fans,” Brownell said. “It was really special to come out to Littlejohn (Sunday) to see 10,000 folks. Really appreciate them coming out early and going to church early and spending the day with us.”
“It was good they came out on Sunday to support us. It shows they support us through whatever. They’ve got our backs,” Clemson’s Rod Hall said. “It was big for all of us on the team to have that many people here on a Sunday morning, not even in the evening. To have them behind us, I think they pushed us to help get that victory as well.”
The turnout impressed Illinois coach John Groce, who made a point to commend Clemson and its fan base for Sunday’s showing.
“It was a hard-fought game, great environment in here (Sunday),” Groce said. “It was a great home court here so I give Clemson and their administration and their game management a lot of credit. It was a great environment for an early-morning game in here.”
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How much did the homecourt advantage help the Tigers?
It’s hard to quantify that, but the crowd was a factor, standing and cheering when Clemson made its runs or when the Illini threatened to pull away late.
As the No. 2 seed in the NIT bracket, Illinois would have hosted the game against No. 3 seed Clemson.
But the renovation of State Farm Center prevented the Illini from hosting postseason games.
Groce wasn’t wondering “what if” afterward.
“We enjoy playing on the road. We’ve had a winning record in road and neutral games now in back-to-back years. Our guys enjoy it, they love the challenge,” Groce said. “We were well aware of the challenge before the tournament started. The administration and I were on the same page. We’re excited about our building. The renovation’s going to be unbelievable.
“From what I see, when it gets finished it’s going to be right up there with about all of them, all the ones you might say are in the upper echelon of facilities in the country. We’re excited about that. The timetable required they needed to start as soon as our last regular season game was over and we really believe in controlling the things we can control. You can’t control that.”
Brownell credited Illinois’ players for not folding under the pressure of the hostile environment.
“John’s guys, they just fight,” Brownell said. “We had them a couple times where the crowd was in the game and had them on their back and they just make a play whether it’s (Jon) Ekey making a three or (Rayvonte) Rice getting to the rim. That’s a tough-minded, hard-fought group to play against. That’s a really good win for our guys.”
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Illinois’ last shot of the game, a desperation Tracy Abrams three-pointer, was not the play drawn up in the huddle.
Abrams’ heave missed everything and came to rest out of bounds with 1.7 seconds remaining.
The play was supposed to go through Rice, who led the Illini with 15 points.
“Obviously (Abrams) has made a lot of big plays for us throughout the year,” Groce said. “Ray got leveled off, pitched it to Tracy, there was 4.1 (seconds) left when he pitched it to him and he shot it. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. He must have thought he was going to raise up and bury it. He didn’t make it. I wish he would have drew some iron so it gives you the chance to rebound it in a scramble situation, maybe you get the offensive rebound and then you get fouled.”
Abrams’ late miss sparked plenty of conversation among fans on social media after the game.
Much of it negative toward the junior guard.
“Tracy’s a big part of what we do, so obviously we’ve got to continue to get better and he’ll tell you the same thing,” Groce said. “That was his judgment and what he saw, and I’m going to ride with him.”
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Abrams’ miss was one of 18 for the Illini from behind the three-point line.
Illinois made 3 of 21 from deep, with all three makes coming from Ekey.
The Illini missed their first 11 threes and were 1 for 17 from beyond the line until Ekey buried two late, including the last field goal of the game for Illinois with 2:05 left that gave them a 49-48 lead.
The Tigers said they didn’t do anything special to guard against the three.
“I feel like we were just playing our game, the game we always play in Littlejohn,” Clemson’s K.J. McDaniels said.
Clemson is one of the better defensive teams in the country, but Illinois’ shooting woes weren’t necessarily a product of the Tigers playing suffocating defense.
“I’m going to look at it — and I could be wrong — eight or nine of them, there wasn’t anybody in the zip code and we missed them. Of those eight or nine that weren’t in the zip codes, you’ve got to make 3 out of 9, 4 out of 9,” Groce said. “We had some out of timeouts for Ekey, who was 3 for 7 (Sunday), wide open in front of the bench. He usually knocks one or two of those in.”
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Midway through the second half, after Illinois had tied the game at 35, McDaniels got behind the Illini defense in transition, caught a lob from Demarcus Harrison, who tossed the pass from well beyond the halfcourt line, and threw it through the rim with a thunderous dunk.
The play drew one of the biggest roars from the pro-Clemson crowd and is worthy of being a regular highlight on postgame shows.
“I feel like it got us going. It was a great play,” McDaniels said. “I wasn’t sure he was going to throw it, but when he threw it I was ready for it.”
It was exciting to watch, but it’s something McDaniels is used to doing.
It’s a regular occurrence in practice.
“Rod (Hall) has thrown plenty from behind the halfcourt line,” he said, “so it wasn’t a big surprise.”
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Sunday’s game was the last for Ekey and Joseph Bertrand, Illinois’ fifth-year seniors.
Rice is particularly close with both.
He and Ekey got to know one another from their days competing in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Rice played at Drake and Ekey at Illinois State.
“What I remember most about Jon was he got a tip dunk on me and kind of smiled at me,” Rice said. “I kind of got mad and started scoring on him a little bit.”
Rice has grown close to Bertrand during his time in the Illinois program since transferring from Drake.
The two have had some battles in practices the last two years.
“Joe’s dunked on me before and I’ve tried to get him back,” Rice said. “It’s hard to dunk on a guy who can jump out of the gym like Joe can.”