Illinois 81, Auburn 62: 'They played with pride'

Illinois 81, Auburn 62: 'They played with pride'

ATLANTA — Shortly after he beat the halftime buzzer by burying his third three-pointer of the afternoon, Illinois guard Tracy Abrams turned to Charles Barkley, who was sitting courtside at Philips Arena, smiled and said “What’s up?”

The Auburn grad, one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, laughed, shook his head, and said “What’s up” right back at Abrams, who was making his way to the locker room after what Illinois coach John Groce characterized as his team’s best 20 minutes of the young season en route to an 81-62 win Sunday.

Maybe it was the presence of the Hall of Famer sitting courtside that brought out the best in Abrams, who scored a season-high 17 points Sunday. Or maybe it was the name on the front of the opposing jersey. It was against the Tigers last year at the United Center when Abrams scored a career-high 29.

“I was just playing, not worrying about (anything), just thinking about the team and how I could help,” said Abrams, who added seven rebounds, five assists and two steals.

It was a much-needed bounceback performance for the Illini (8-1) in their return trip to Georgia’s capital city after letting a 12-point lead slip away in Tuesday’s loss up the road at Georgia Tech.

It was also a welcomed bounceback performance for Abrams, who has taken the brunt of the Illini criticism from observers outside the program after the loss.

“He doesn’t take anything too personal when people are saying things,” teammate Jon Ekey (14 points) said. “Obviously the coaches are on him and we’re on him because we’re trying to help him. He came out here with a little bit of an edge, played looser and got a few shots to go, which helped.”

With Abrams leading the charge, the Illini were hitting on all cylinders on the home court of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. Rayvonte Rice joined Abrams and Ekey in double figures, scoring a team-high 22 points in front of 2,259, the majority of whom were Illinois fans.

Groce’s club nailed a season-high 12 three-pointers and limited the Tigers (4-3) to 17 first-half points.

“Tonight, for the first time in the first 20 minutes, the offensive end and the defensive end were an A,” Groce said after his team registered 19 assists on 32 made field goals. “Guys played hard, they played with pride, they played for one another, they were together, connected at both ends of the floor. We had really good harmony at both ends of the floor. That was good to see.”

Much of that credit goes to Abrams, who matched his season high in assists.

“I just thought he had a real good pulse of what was going on out there at both ends of the floor,” Groce said. “You add that he made shots on top of all those things and he had a heck of a first half.”

Not that it was necessary, but Sunday’s performance by Abrams, who was 7 for 10 from the floor, served as a sort of validation as to why he remains one of Illinois’ go-to players despite entering the game shooting 31 percent from the floor. Not that the junior was worried about any of the outside chatter.

“I always think about next game, so you can’t really base your game on how your last game was,” he said. “It’s not a big deal to me, you’ve just got to keep shooting and keep playing.”

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