CHAMPAIGN — Beating Indiana usually does something to get the good vibes going within the Illinois basketball program and its rabid fandom. Beating the hated Hoosiers on the final day of the year, in overtime when Evan Gordon — you know who’s little brother — missed a potential game-winner at the end of regulation certainly made the New Year’s Eve celebrations in central Illinois that much sweeter.
“We feel blessed to have won,” Illinois’ John Groce said after his team’s 83-80 win Tuesday against the Hoosiers in front of a sold-out 16,618 at State Farm Center.
As far as the 2013 holiday season in concerned, it’s been an enjoyable one for the Illini.
Illinois (12-2, 1-0 Big Ten) earned a win at UNLV two days before Thanksgiving. Three days before Christmas, Groce’s club ended a four-game skid against No. 23 Missouri at the Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis. The Illini completed the trifecta Tuesday with their 11th win in 12 tries at home against Indiana (10-4, 0-1).
“I’ve got a lot of family in town, so I’ll get a chance to see them here this afternoon, spend a little time with my family before we get up (today) and start our preparation for Penn State,” Groce said.
Illinois fans are ringing in 2014 with smiles on their faces thanks to the effort of a team Indiana coach Tom Crean termed “tough and together,” exactly the look Groce was going for when he took over the program in March of 2012.
The hangover today is a little easier to handle because homegrown son Rayvonte Rice decided to return to Champaign to complete his college career after two seasons at Drake. Against the Hoosiers on Tuesday, the Centennial product tied a career high with 29 points to go along with eight rebounds and three steals.
Illini fans are OK with their football team not in a bowl today because Tracy Abrams (17 points, three steals) and Joseph Bertrand (13 points, seven boards) continued their steady play and helped Illinois deadlock the all-time series with fellow Big Ten charter member Indiana at 85-85.
And Illini fans are celebrating today because freshman Kendrick Nunn played the best all-around game of his young career with seven points and three steals off the bench.
“We’re not real pretty all the time, we battle and fight and claw and scratch,” Groce said. “We’ve got some tough guys. They’re fun to coach.”
The Illini are having fun, too, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. Despite allowing a season-high 80 points, Illinois limited the Hoosiers, who got 30 points from Yogi Ferrell and 16 from freshman big man Noah Vonleh (nine rebounds), to one field goal in the final 11:44 of the game. The one make was a desperation three-pointer by Ferrell with three seconds left in overtime.
That’s one game after holding UIC to 16 points in the second half of Saturday’s win.
“There’s no question about it, our defense is pretty good when we’re locked in and focused,” Abrams said after Illinois forced a season-high 23 turnovers. “Guys are connected out there and just making sure we found a way.”
Tuesday’s win provided plenty to celebrate. Rice briefly did so at State Farm Center after the win with former Illini D.J. Richardson and Sam McLaurin. But don’t get too carried away. This was just Game 1 of an 18-game slobber knocker known as the Big Ten.
“It’s great,” Rice said. “We’re gonna celebrate this one and move on and get ready for Penn State on Saturday.”