Illinois 81, Auburn 62: Notebook

Illinois 81, Auburn 62: Notebook

ATLANTA — Sam McLaurin’s professional career was off to a promising start in Finland. The forward, who played his final year of eligibility for the Illini last season, said he was averaging 16 points and nine rebounds per game in Finland.

Then he tore his meniscus, which has him on the shelf for much of the remainder of the season.

“There was a decision to stay there and rehab over there. It’s kind of lonely overseas. If you’re not playing basketball, why are you there?” he said. “So, I decided to come back and try to rehab.”

McLaurin returned to the United States last month to his hometown near Tallahassee, Fla., and made the four-hour drive to watch the Illini beat Auburn 81-62 on Sunday at Philips Arena.

Before the game he visited with the Illinois coaching staff and players, and afterward he celebrated with the team in the locker room.

“He came through the locker room, showed some love to us younger guys, so that was good to have him here,” Tracy Abrams said.

McLaurin said he plans to move to Champaign after the Christmas holiday to resume his rehab in an effort to return to the court to continue his career.

“After I make a full recovery, I’m going to go back overseas. Where? I don’t know,” he said. “I had a lot of teams contact me right after I got hurt. It was promising and let me know I did pretty good while I was out there.”

The experience, he said, was a positive one on and off the court.

“It was a lot of fun. There’s no more class, so you eat, sleep, breathe basketball. It was a good experience. There were a lot of good players over there,” he said.

He even kept up with the Illini and watched games on his computer despite the seven-hour time difference.

With Florida State reaching the national championship game in football, McLaurin said his hometown is buzzing.

“Florida State has Tallahassee rolling right now,” he said. “It’s got people feeling real good right now.”

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At the top of Illinois’ scouting report entering Sunday’s game was limiting Tigers guard Chris Denson. Denson entered the contest leading the SEC in scoring at 21.8 points per game. He had scored at least 15 in every game this season entering Sunday. But the Illini limited the 6-foot-2 left-hander to eight points on 3-for-7 shooting.

“A big part of our game was to limit him from getting to the free throw line. He is a terrific talent,” Illinois coach John Groce said.

Denson entered the game averaging 11 free throw attempts per game, which was eighth in the country.

Against the Illini, he went 2 for 5 from the stripe.

“Part of his 21 points per game was getting to the free throw line,” Groce said. “He has a knack for drawing fouls. We tried to do the best we could without fouling, and I thought we did that.”

Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice and Joseph Bertrand were the primary defenders on Denson throughout the game, and freshman Kendrick Nunn also spent some time on him.

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Among the 2,259 in attendance Sunday was NBA Hall of Fame forward Charles Barkley. Barkley, a former Auburn star, lives in Atlanta while working NBA telecasts for TNT. He sat courtside, and the Illini noticed his presence.

“It was exciting. It was one of those things where you walk in and do a double-take,” forward Jon Ekey said. “We didn’t realize he was going to be there. It was definitely cool playing in front of him and him being right there in front.”

Groce knew he was there, too, but he wasn’t as taken aback by it as the players were.

“The guys told me he was here. Everybody knows who he is. I didn’t even think about it once I heard that and the ball tipped,” Groce said.

Barkley signed dozens of autographs and posed for even more photos with Illinois and Auburn fans alike at Philips Arena.

Rhonda Rice, mother of Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice, was among those who posed for photos with Barkley.

“It was pretty good as a player to be in that environment. At the same time, you’ve just got to stay humble,” Abrams said.

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Abrams and teammate Nnanna Egwu were battling an illness for much of the latter part of the week, according to Groce.

“They could have had every excuse in the book and they didn’t, they won’t tell you,” Groce said. “They’re tough kids and they really willed themselves.”

Abrams said losing Tuesday night at Georgia Tech made him sick — figuratively. He didn’t actually get sick until Thursday.

“I’ve just been fighting it. I’ve been coming to practice every day, bring energy and go play,” he said.

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For the second straight game in Atlanta, Illinois fans made their presence known. More than a third of the 6,000-plus at Tuesday’s game against Georgia Tech were Illinois fans. More than half of the folks in Sunday’s crowd of 2,259 were cheering for the visitors from the Big Ten.

“I recognized that we had a lot of fans, which is terrific. Obviously a lot of our fans travel for the games,” Groce said. “We’ve got an alumni association here in the Atlanta area and they support Illini athletics and Illini basketball heavily; we saw that Tuesday night. That was an unbelievable showing again, two times in a row. We’re at a special place where they care an awful lot about Illinois basketball, so we’re really fortunate in that regard.”

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After Illinois’ first trip to Atlanta during the week, the team encountered some travel issues. The team plane was grounded at the airport in Atlanta for a few hours because of fog in the area. Once it got off the ground, it planned to land in Bloomington because of fog issues at the airport in Savoy. That plan was abandoned and the team landed in St. Louis.

In St. Louis, they spent the night in separate hotels because they couldn’t find enough rooms in one hotel to accommodate the entire travel party. They bused back to campus the following afternoon.

It was never an issue, according to Groce.

“We have to be unconditional. The guys know that, we can’t control all that. We’ve got to prepare for the game and whatever cards are dealt to us, we’ve got to play those cards. That’s how life is, that’s how basketball is, that’s what I’m trying to teach them,” he said. “I thought guys played their cards well. Obviously, you don’t want to have travel complications. We had a few on Wednesday, but (director of basketball operations) Mark Morris does a great job working alongside with his sidekick (sports information director Derrick Burson) over there, those guys figured it out and we were able to get back and prepare on Thursday and Friday and Saturday and be ready to roll (Sunday).”

arcus Jackson