CHICAGO — A few rows behind the Illinois bench, Felicia Sales couldn’t rid herself of an ear-to-ear grin. A look at her attire — an orange No. 13 Illinois jersey — and it was easy to understand her happiness.
Her son, Illinois sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams, had just put on a show in his hometown.
“I’m proud, I’m so proud of him,” Felicia said after Tracy posted career highs of 27 points and eight rebounds in No. 12 Illinois’ 81-79 win against Auburn in front of 18,139 at the United Center.
“It was fun. I’m happy, excited,” Mom said. “It’s amazing that he did this on the Bulls’ court.”
Tracy Abrams said he regularly attended Bulls games as a youngster. The product of Mount Carmel High School on the South Side never imagined he’d have a performance like his exhibition Saturday against the Tigers.
“It’s a dream come true,” Abrams said as Bulls point guard Kirk Hinrich walked past him in the hallway. “Growing up in Chicago, you hear about the Bulls and the United Center. It’s a privilege. I thank God for the opportunity. It’s a blessing.”
Illinois (13-1) didn’t have many recent good memories inside the building where it now owns a 33-11 record. The Illini had lost five of six at the United Center, including three straight.
Without Abrams’ contributions against the Tigers (5-7) — he also had five assists, four steals and one turnover in 35 minutes — the rough patch likely would have extended into the Big Ten tournament, which returns to the city in March.
“The last two days in practice, it’s kind of like the book ‘212 Degrees,’ it’s where water boils. All of a sudden, two days ago, it started boiling for him,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “He started seeing some things in practice when we got back from Christmas and playing at a speed and having some pace and changing gears that I liked.”
Brandon Paul struggled from the floor for Illinois, shooting 3 for 12 and 0 for 5 from behind the three-point line. But he finished with 13 points and has scored in double figures in every game this season.
Auburn, which tied a season high with 11 three-pointers, got 21 points from Frankie Sullivan, 13 from Rob Chubb and 10 from Allen Payne (10 rebounds).
No matter how ugly, though, the win in Chicago was a relief for the Illini. When they lost to Illinois-Chicago here in 2010, fans went out of their way to get a spot near the players’ tunnel to yell obscenities at the team.
Saturday, they walked off the floor to a rousing ovation and a special one for Abrams, who departed the court by himself after his teammates were in the locker room.
“That’s a great feeling when you think about it,” he said. “Not a lot of guys get to come here and play and have a game like this. It really is a blessing.”