UI 75, Penn State 55: 'Illinois is moving up'
CHAMPAIGN — John Groce sported his orange blazer as a tribute to legendary Illinois coach Lou Henson on Saturday.
And after his team’s 75-55 win against Penn State, he went out of his way to seek out members of Henson’s 1989 Flyin’ Illini, who were honored during a halftime ceremony. Groce, the second-year Illinois coach, shook hands, hugged and posed for pictures with the players from that Final Four team.
The Illinois players paid their respects to the Flyin’ Illini, too, after the game, shaking hands before retreating to the locker room.
“Those guys mean a lot to our program. This is a great place, a powerful place,” Groce said of the Flyin’ Illini. “I feel blessed to be a part of it and associated with it.”
These Illini (13-2, 2-0 Big Ten) might not be as flashy as the 1989 team that kept highlight shows in business with its high-flying slam dunks, but in terms of grit and toughness, Groce’s club is approaching the same neighborhood.
Illinois held the Nittany Lions (9-6, 0-2) to their lowest point total of the season and 25 below their season average. Guards D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier entered the contest as the highest scoring guard combo in the country at better than 36 points per game. They combined to score 17 Saturday.
“Those two guys are really, really talented,” Groce said. “We’ve played against some really, really good perimeters and our guys did a good job on those two guys.”
The old guys recognize the determination with which Groce’s Illinois team has played to this point in the season and are appreciative of the way it has represented the program.
“I love it. I love how they play,” Flyin’ Illini legend Marcus Liberty said. “We’re moving up right now. We’re not moving down, Illinois is moving up.”
It’s moving up because of guys like Rayvonte Rice, who scored a team-high 15 points to go along with seven rebounds. Tracy Abrams (six rebounds) added 12 points, while Jon Ekey (eight rebounds) and Joseph Bertrand (seven rebounds) scored 11 apiece in a game that saw Newbill ejected after he delivered a blow to the back of Kendrick Nunn’s head with 8:38 remaining.
In spending time with the members of the 1989 team this weekend, the big takeaway among the current players was the closeness and the bond that group shares 25 years after they played together at Illinois.
“They were a team that was really together, really tough. They had all that we’re trying to be,” Ekey said of the Flyin’ Illini, who hooted and hollered for the current team in the tunnel as they headed to the locker room at halftime. “We see the way that they are now, what it meant to them playing this game that we’re lucky enough to play right now, so we’re just trying to take what they did and keep growing.”
Said Groce: “I told my wife, I hope 25 years later, this team I have now — we’ve got a great group of guys that play the game the right way and play the game together — that they’ll have that same feeling toward one another that those guys did last night.”