ATLANTA — Following Friday’s too-close-for-comfort 57-55 win against IPFW at State Farm Center, John Groce wasn’t particularly pleased with the effort of his bench, which is comprised of five freshmen, for the way they handled themselves in practice after Illinois’ big road win at UNLV.
The freshmen accounted for three points and six turnovers in that game.
Jaylon Tate, Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill, Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan were challenged in the days leading up to Tuesday’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge game, and despite the loss, Groce was pleased with the way they bounced back.
Tate finished with five assists and no turnovers, Nunn finished with five points and Hill had two points and a blocked shot. Morgan battled foul trouble in the first half, and Colbert had a bucket against the Yellow Jackets.
And despite Illinois’ offense struggling to get into a flow during the decisive Georgia Tech run, Groce said he opted to leave Tate out of the game and go with the veterans.
“That was my decision. (Jaylon’s) coming along; he’s doing a great job. I thought Kendrick’s minutes were good,” Groce said. “I thought Malcolm didn’t play there for a stretch, and in the second half I thought he did a great job of being physical and trapping the post and executing the game plan. I thought Maverick’s minutes were pretty good, and Colbert did fine as well. We’ve got to continue to bring those guys along, continue to make them better, and we’ll make decisions accordingly.”
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At times during Tuesday’s game, if you closed your eyes it would have been easy to assume the game was being played in Champaign and not on Georgia Tech’s campus.
Illinois fans were out in full force at the Hank McCamish Pavilion, drowning out the Yellow Jackets fans’ cheers with noise of their own. Made Illinois baskets were loudly cheered, and the I-L-L, I-N-I chant was a solid, sustained one.
Despite the loss, the Illini appreciated the energy of the fans down South.
“It was great. To have Illinois fans here cheering us on, it helped us a lot,” Rayvonte Rice said. “Having true fans like that really means a lot.”
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The last time Illinois men’s golf coach Mike Small was in the Atlanta area for an Illini sporting event, he was leading his squad to a runner-up finish at the NCAA Championships played at Capital City Club in nearby Milton, Ga. Groce and athletic director Mike Thomas were on the course for that.
On Tuesday, Small sat behind the Illinois bench next to Thomas and his wife Jeni, cheering for Groce, a good friend, and the Illini.
Small made the trip with the team and he brought his clubs, too. He got in a round at East Lake Golf Club, home of the Tour Championship, with some friends. Tuesday was a rainy day in Atlanta, but Small’s group didn’t get rained on until the 16th hole.
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To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Lou Henson’s Flyin’ Illini marching to the Final Four, Champaign’s CBS affiliate, WCIA-3, will air an hourlong special about the team called “Flight 89: 25 years of the Flyin’ Illini” on Saturday at 7 p.m.
WCIA sports director Aaron Bennett put together the broadcast that will feature interviews with Kendall Gill, Stephen Bardo, Marcus Liberty, Larry Smith and Henson, the legendary Illinois coach.
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For the third time in the last four games, Illinois big man Nnanna Egwu battled foul trouble.
The 6-foot-11 junior picked up two fouls in the first half but still played 11 minutes as Groce opted to use a zone defense at times to keep him from picking up a third.
Staying out of foul trouble continues to be a work in progress for Egwu.
“Nnanna was out of rhythm in the first half with foul trouble. Second half he was better defensively figuring out how to play hard without fouling,” Groce said. “I thought that was good. He had three blocks; he was active. I thought he did a good job on the glass in the second half, blocking out. He didn’t get some, but he kept them off the backboard.”
When he’s in and out of games because of the foul trouble, Egwu’s game on the other end of the floor suffers a bit, as he gets out of rhythm. He committed a key turnover late during Georgia Tech’s game-clinching run.
“Offensively he was OK. I know Nnanna, he’s a good kid. He dinged up the last pass there, but I’ll live with that. Maybe I shouldn’t have given him the ball in that situation, so that’s not all his fault. He and I are going to work on that together,” Groce said. “Stuff happens like that. I feel bad for him because he’s such a great kid. All in all, I thought his effort was good.”