MINNEAPOLIS — A week after senior Brandon Paul was taken out of the starting lineup for the first time all season, Tracy Abrams dealt with the same reality.
The sophomore point guard came off the bench for Illinois in Sunday’s win against No. 18 Minnesota — and it was for the same reason Paul did.
“Defense,” Illinois coach John Groce deadpanned. “Those guys know. I love all of them, it’s simple right now. I just felt like during that stretch we were getting better on offense, one game we had 75 points in 74 possessions and we get beat because we weren’t affecting field goal percentage and/or turning the other team over. So, I told them what I was going to do. Guys don’t even flinch now, they know, and they know no one’s exempt from it.”
Abrams, who went scoreless in Thursday’s win against top-ranked Indiana, responded with a solid performance Sunday. He scored five points, including the decisive three-pointer in the final minute, to go along with six rebounds, six assists and no turnovers.
Abrams said he and Groce had a conversation after the Indiana game, so he knew he likely wouldn’t start Sunday.
“I just tried to stay positive,” he said.
After Sunday’s win, Tyler Griffey was interviewed on the Williams Arena floor by former Illini great Eddie Johnson, who called the game for the BTN. After that, the two posed for a photo as they share one thing in common no other Illini can boast: They each hit a game-winning shot at the buzzer to beat the No. 1 team in the country at the Assembly Hall.
Johnson did it in 1979 when the Illini stunned Michigan State. Griffey did it Thursday against the Hoosiers.
“It was a really great feeling,” Johnson said of his shot. “Magic Johnson was on that team, who at that time was the best player in college basketball and a friend of mine. It was a great night. I thought it was the most important game in Illinois history at the time.
“It was sold out, it was on TV and all the things that went into that week were based on the year we were having. We were playing really well at the time and to beat them was just great.”
Johnson watched Thursday as Griffey got loose for an uncontested layup with 0.9 second remaining to stun the Hoosiers and leading the Orange Krush to storm the floor and celebrate with the Illini.
Johnson knows how Griffey is feeling these days.
“I’m sure he’s the happiest thing going right now,” Johnson said. “He probably wishes it was a three and not a wide-open layup, but you take what you can get.”
More than the memories, though, Thursday’s stunner was a big moment for this current Illinois team.
“They had that five-game stretch after Nebraska that was murderers row and it wasn’t going well. To beat the best team in the country was huge,” Johnson said.
Griffey broke out of a well-documented shooting slump in that Indiana game, hitting a pair of three-pointers to end an 0-for-22 skid.
He continued his hot shooting Sunday, making four more threes.
“I just put in so much work, I put up so (many) shots staying after practice, before practice, it was unbelievable,” he said. “I didn’t know what was wrong, I was asking everybody. Former (high school) coaches were coming into Ubben trying to help me. When the first shot went down at Indiana I was like ‘Finally’ and a relief came over me and I was able to relax and play my game.”
He had been playing well in other areas through the shooting slump and he’s now playing a complete, well-rounded game.
“His mind’s in a good place, he’s pretty tough right now. He’s really defending, rebounding — he had three offensive rebounds in the first half,” Groce said. “He’s just really locked in, even late in the game he’s running around reminding guys that we have no timeouts left. He’s just really engaged right now, really, really locked in.”
The key to Illinois’ improved play has been the communication on the court among the players. D.J. Richardson has been the chief communicator and he’s a little more clear these days than he had been in the past.
The message is the same, it’s just easier to understand.
“I haven’t been wearing my mouthpiece because it’s hard for me to talk, so I’ve been trying to do a good job of leading the team and giving myself to the team,” he said.
His teammates have recognized the difference.
“He sounds like D.J., not a muffled, mumbled junk that was coming out of his mouth before,” Griffey said.
People around the Big Ten have raved about the improvement Illinois’ Nnanna Egwu has made on the floor, increasing his scoring average by four points from last year and his rebounding average by three.
And as his game has improved, so has his confidence, which has led him to become more of a vocal leader.
“Without question, he’s become more and more confident. I think he understands more and more what we want out of him. I think he’s been really good, no question about it,” Groce said. “He’s been more vocal. I think guys respect him for what he brings to the table and who he is as a worker. Every day he brings it. He cares at such a high level and is willing to go above and beyond and do extra all the time and do stuff on top of what might be the norm. There’s no question that confidence has allowed him to be more vocal and lead more.”
Richardson was featured in the latest episode of the BTN program “The Journey” in a segment that traces the roots of Peoria basketball players suiting up for the Illini.
Since Jerry Hester arrived at Illinois in 1993, there has been a Peoria native on the Illini roster for 20 straight years. That will end when Richardson graduates.
“I’m not sure what it is, I guess it kind of goes in cycles,” said Hester, Illinois’ analyst for the Illini Sports Network. “You look at Peoria basketball, I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish the last 20 years at Illinois. Even before me guys like Mark Smith, Tony Wysinger, Doug Altenberger, all of us are proud of us and what we were able to accomplish.”
Hester is especially proud of the latest Peoria native, Richardson, for all he’s gone through during his career at Illinois.
“The way he’s handled it has been so impressive. It’s a different time now than even when I was here, which is slowly becoming a long time ago. There’s so much social media and immediate reactions about the players that they can get to, it’s not just in the newspapers,” Hester said. “It’s in your face. But the consistent effort that he gives has been great. And he’s been a leader for this team this year.”