CHAMPAIGN — During Illinois’ current seven-game losing streak, one thing has remained constant: John Groce enters the postgame news conference that upbeat guy whom Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas says “makes caffeine nervous.”
After losing by 25 at Wisconsin, being held to 43 points at Northwestern or a loss at home against Purdue, Groce has answered questions afterward with a high-energy demeanor.
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After Saturday’s 81-74 loss to No. 15 Iowa at State Farm Center, the second-year Illinois coach spoke in a quieter tone, seemingly down in the dumps.
It had nothing to do with the career highs of 15 points and 12 rebounds Iowa’s Gabe Olaseni recorded off the bench. The 20 second-chance points his team yielded on 15 offensive rebounds wasn’t to blame for the mood, either.
What had the 42-year-old coach down after his team’s seventh straight loss was the way it was received by some of the 16,618 in attendance Saturday.
“I was ticked off. People were booing. Ticked me off. I don’t like that. You can say stuff about me. Don’t touch my guys. I think that’s unacceptable,” Groce said. “The Orange Krush was phenomenal.”
Insults started flying in the direction of the Illini from the home fans when the Hawkeyes (17-5, 6-3 Big Ten) took a 34-13 lead with 7:34 to go in the first half. Some questioned the team’s heart. Others questioned the playing rotations and coaching philosophies. All of it was enough to get under the typically unflappable Groce’s skin.
“I know we weren’t playing great, but we’re counting on our building to be positive,” Groce said. “These guys are fighters, man, they’ve been through a lot. They battle. I was really proud of them. Certainly, I’m not saying everyone did that, because that would be unfair. Let’s root for Illinois in our building.”
Illinois (13-9, 2-7) gave the orange-clad folks something to cheer about from that point on, mounting a furious comeback, eventually taking a five-point lead midway through the second half. But, like so many other times during this losing skid that’s reached 24 days, the effort and the fight just wasn’t enough to hang a notch in the win column.
“That one stings just because of how hard our guys played. I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of our toughness and togetherness in a loss since I’ve been coaching in my six years as a head coach,” Groce said. “We’re right there.”
Joseph Bertrand led all scorers with 20 points for the Illini. Rayvonte Rice (nine rebounds) added 13 points while Tracy Abrams poured in 11.
Freshmen Kendrick Nunn (four assists) and Malcolm Hill each scored seven points and helped spark the Illinois comeback.
“How many teams down 21, after what they’ve been through the past couple of weeks, would be able to come back from down 21 against a Top 25 nationally ranked team? Not very many,” Groce said. “It takes a certain mental toughness to be able to do that.”
The Illini were better on Saturday than they have been of late, shooting 44.6 percent and scoring 74 points, highs during the losing streak. It still wasn’t enough to stop the bleeding against the high-octane Hawkeyes, who got 17 points — all in the second half — from Roy Devyn Marble.
When Groce laid his head down Saturday night, surely his brain was spinning trying to figure out how he and his staff can get this team over the hump. What he’s not losing sleep over, however, is the effort of his guys.
“We played with a lot of toughness, a lot of togetherness. Really played with a lot of grit. I thought they fought for everything,” he said. “I told them in the locker room after the game that I’m proud of them. I love them.”