When Illinois led 26-13 and Rayvonte Rice hadn’t scored, Auburn’s basketball forces could feel the dark clouds hovering over them Sunday in Atlanta.
Not that the southerners from Alabama care. They’re still celebrating Saturday’s SEC football championship, and their fans barely made a dent in the suite-lined, sparsely-attended Philips Arena.
Sure enough, Rice got rolling after 15 shutout minutes, posted another 22 points, and the 8-1 “basketball school” beat the 4-3 “football school” hands down, 81-62.
The red-hot Illini were so three-happy that junior Nnanna Egwu was virtually overlooked, the 6-foot-11 center getting just two field attempts, and no points after the first two minutes. The UI percentages — 61.5 percent from the field and 52.2 on arc-shots — speak for themselves. In their previous three games, all decided in the last 10 seconds, the Illini averaged 61.7 points on 38.9-percent shooting.
“This was a terrific response after our difficult loss to Georgia Tech,” coach John Groce said. “That’s the best ball movement I’ve seen since I’ve been at Illinois. We really zipped the ball around ... 19 assists on 32 baskets.”
A college basketball team might have a half-dozen games like this during a season. Jon Ekey cashed two treys in a 12-6 getaway, and the more the Illini shot, the hotter they got. Coach Tony Barbee, under the gun with a 39-62 record at Auburn, must wonder what he’s doing wrong as opponents keep drowning his team in treys. Northwestern State won by hitting 14 of 27 and, more recently, the trio of Murray State, Tennessee State and Iowa State bagged 29 of 71. Then comes Illinois, which had been shooting 31 percent from the arc, with 12 of 23.
On the rebound
Best player on the court was Tracy Abrams. This is significant because it’s been a topsy-turvy season for the junior guard. Consecutively, he was 2 for 12 and no great factor in the 61-59 win at UNLV, had an exceptional 15-point game in the 57-55 defeat of IPFW, slumped again in the 67-64 giveaway to Georgia Tech, and rose to the occasion with an exceptional line Sunday: 17 points (3 of 5 treys), seven rebounds, five assists and two steals.
“Tracy has been through a lot lately — he and Nnanna (strep throat) have been under the weather — and he really played like an elite guard,” Groce said.
Maybe it was the sight of those Auburn uniforms. Abrams scored 27 in an 81-79 triumph at the United Center last December. Whatever it was, this is the Abrams that the Illini need in order to hold up against ever-stiffening competition. After Dartmouth at home Tuesday, the Illini will play three consecutive games in pro arenas vs. Oregon in Portland, Missouri in St. Louis and UIC in Chicago.
Groce continued his policy of sticking with the five veterans for the most part, Jaylon Tate getting the most minutes (18) for the freshmen. The plebes are still making too many mistakes, as demonstrated in the UI turnover column: 14 overall, of which nine were by the five freshmen.
Hidden in the UI’s volley of treys was another UI defensive effort that verified pregame stats showing Illinois at No. 7 in opponents’ points (58.3) and No. 13 in opponents’ field goal percentage (37.0).
Facing yet another weak-shooting perimeter foe — Auburn was hitting 25 percent on treys — Groce mixed some zone early before again falling back on man-to-man coverage. For a time, the hosts were blanketed. Auburn managed just six field goals in the first half while the Illini were striking from all angles in establishing a 41-17 lead.
When Rice, Ekey, Joseph Bertrand and Abrams connected early in the second half, the 52-22 score made it obvious that this one was over ... and while Illinois won’t always shoot like this, the potential is there for it to happen at any time ... and on any court.
It remains clear, for the remainder of December at least, that the brunt of the load will be carried by the five Illini veterans ... the only juniors and seniors on this team. Considering their limitations, they are working together well and actually played 26 exceptional minutes in their only loss to Georgia Tech before upping that number to plus-30 Sunday.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.