AUSTIN, Texas — In the second half, with Illinois in the midst of a 16-2 run, Nnanna Egwu lost his shoe.
Illinois’ big man tried to put it back on, but he wasn’t having any luck.
So he shuffled to the Illinois bench, handed his shoe to coach John Groce, then went to the lane and posted up with a fluorescent orange shoe on one foot and just a white sock on the other.
“I lost it on the defensive side. When we were going back on offense, I tried to put it back on, but it was taking too long,” Egwu said. “I thought they were gonna call timeout for me but they didn’t, so I gave it to Coach Groce and found a way to get back in the offensive possession.”
Groce asked the officials if they could call a timeout to allow Egwu to put his shoe back on. His request was denied.
“We’re gonna play under any circumstances and anything that happens. We just have to play through it; it was no big deal,” Egwu said.
Four of the eight teams playing Friday at the Erwin Center featured orange in their school colors. It was difficult to tell the Illinois backers from the Miami loyalists, but once they started making noise, there was no question which fan base was best represented.
Prior to tipoff of Illinois’ game against Colorado, a boisterous “I-L-L, I-N-I” chant rang out in the building.
“We had a huge following. Illini Nation travels the best I’ve ever seen,” Tyler Griffey said.
Illinois was the only one of the eight schools in Austin to sell its allotment of 500 tickets. Members of the Illinois women’s track and field team, which is competing today 30 minutes away in San Marcos, attended the game, too.
“Just to look up and see all that orange was good. I was trying to figure if they were Miami or Illinois, but when I heard the ‘I-L-L’ that’s when you knew,” Sam McLaurin said.
Late in the game, Illinois guard Tracy Abrams limped off the floor clutching his left leg. The sophomore didn’t return, but Illinois had the game in hand as Colorado continued to foul in an effort to extend the game.
Abrams, who had 13 points, six assists and four rebounds, said he’s fine.
“I just cramped up a little bit. I’m all good. I didn’t get hit, I just cramped up. I’m all good,” he said.
A focal point entering Friday’s game was the one-on-one matchup between Colorado’s Andre Roberson and Illinois’ Brandon Paul. Roberson, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, drew the assignment of guarding Illinois’ leading scorer.
Paul finished 3 for 12 from the floor but had 17 points to lead all scorers.
“He’s tough; he’s a good player. I’ve been playing against tough defenders my whole life, and he’s definitely up there,” Paul said of Roberson.
“He’s real athletic, and he was in my grill the whole game. He played hard tonight and made me work for all the baskets. I had some open shots in the second half, I wasn’t making them all, but I wanted to make up for it at the free throw line.”
Paul went 9 for 10 from the free throw line. In the Colorado locker room, the Buffaloes players viewed Roberson’s work on Paul as a victory.
“He’s a great player. He wasn’t hitting shots today, but he’s still a great player; he’s a catalyst for their team,” Xavier Johnson said. “Dre is the Defensive Player of the Year, and he shut him down with ease. There was no surprise there.”
Illinois was able to force 15 Colorado turnovers and converted those miscues into 21 points. The Buffs said it wasn’t because of anything the Illini were doing.
“We had a lot of traveling calls, a lot of bad execution; that wasn’t from them at all, that was on us,” Johnson said. “It was a lack of execution, lack of focus.”
When Roberson fouled out in the final minute, Colorado fans in attendance chanted “One more year” at the junior from San Antonio, who might skip his final season of eligibility to enter the NBA draft.
“I definitely heard that. I had a little smile on my face,” Roberson said. “It just shows how supportive our community is.”
Roberson said he will go through the NBA draft process and talk things over with Colorado coach Tad Boyle before making a decision.
“The process starts pretty quick, but I’ll probably wait until the deadline and weigh my options,” Roberson said. “I’m not really gonna talk about it right now. I want to wait a little bit and sit down with Coach Boyle and see how things go.”
In the week preparing for the Buffaloes and watching film, Groce grew to appreciate Roberson’s game. In the handshake line afterward, the Illinois coach stopped Roberson and spoke briefly with him.
“He likes me. He watched a lot of film, and he liked the way I played and told me I’d have a lot of success in the future and hoped I’d do well,” Roberson said.
In the first East Regional game at Erwin Center, Miami’s 78-49 win against Pacific brought an end to the coaching career of Tigers coach Bob Thomason after 25 years at the California school. Thomason announced last spring the 2012-13 season would be his last in coaching.
After the game, Miami center Reggie Johnson stopped Thomason and wished him well in retirement.
“My wife’s a little nervous, she’s only known me as a head coach, so she will either like me better or we’re going to have problems,” Thomason said. “We’ve been married 40 years, so I think we’ll be OK.”