CHAMPAIGN — John Groce has heard the chatter about Tracy Abrams’ shooting numbers — the junior guard came in at a 30 percent clip entering Friday’s game against Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne — and he’s got an opinion about that.
“You can shove that wherever you want to shove it,” the Illinois coach said after Abrams scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half of the Illini’s 57-55 win against the Mastodons on Friday night at State Farm Center.
With the Illini (7-0) trailing by 11 in the final minute of the first half, Abrams converted a layup, got fouled and hit the free throw to cut the halftime deficit to eight. He then scored six straight Illinois points in one minute early in the second half to infuse some life into his team and the 15,638 in attendance while cutting into the IPFW (6-3) lead.
“Dude’s a winner, I’m living with that. His mind-set, he’s just a tough kid,” Groce said of Abrams. “His ability to get other guys, pull them with him ... that’s the sign of a guy that’s really growing in a leadership area.”
Abrams’ ascent to Illinois’ go-to guy in the leadership department has been a long journey. He didn’t quite have it at the end of his freshman season when Groce arrived to take over the program, but he’s made some serious strides in the last 20 months. That was on full display Friday night, and he got it done on both ends of the floor (four steals).
“I feel like coaches have done a great job of helping me grow up as a player, a person off the court,” Abrams said. “You just have to be open to learn. He talks about being lifelong learners, and I feel like it’s a great opportunity to be open-minded.”
Abrams got help from Rayvonte Rice on Friday. Illinois’ leading scorer dropped 17 and grabbed six rebounds against the Mastodons, but it was his steal and two free throws with eight seconds left that served as his signature moment.
It was similar to the play he made late in the 2009 Class 3A state championship game that sealed the game for Centennial.
“He has great hands; he has a gift to anticipate,” Groce said. “He’s able to play harder longer because I tease him all the time, I say ‘You lost half a person.’ (Friday night) he made a couple big ones.”
Illinois also got 11 points from Joseph Bertrand, but overall Groce was somewhat disappointed in how his team started the game, particularly the freshmen off the bench. Friday served as a learning experience after Tuesday’s big win at UNLV.
Without the leadership of Abrams and the big playmaking of Rice, Friday’s result would have been different.
“I gave him a hug after the game. I was so proud of the way he led,” Groce said of Abrams. “From where he’s come when I first got here to now, Jiminy Christmas. He’s a big part of what we do, as all the guys are, but I was really proud of his leadership (Friday night). His aggressiveness, his ability to keep our team together was really outstanding.”
Rayvonte Rice scored a game-high 17 points, including a pair of free throws late, in helping the Illini move to 7-0 for the third straight season.
What it means
While it wasn’t pretty, the November win streak continues for the Illini, who have won 26 straight in the 11th month. Under John Groce, they’re 15-0.
The Illini head back on the road for the first of two straight in Atlanta, the first on Tuesday at Georgia Tech in a rematch of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge game the Illini won last year in Champaign.