Michigan 64, UI 63: NIT likely next stop
INDIANAPOLIS — Immediately, of course, there was disappointment. Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu each fell to the Bankers Life Fieldhouse court after Abrams’ 8-footer fell short at the horn, sending top-seeded Michigan to a 64-63 win against ninth-seeded Illinois in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament on Friday.
“That one stings a little bit,” Illini coach John Groce said.
Heads didn’t hang long. Receiving a standing ovation from the folks inside the home of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers who were decked out in orange, the Illini applauded their fans, shared smiles and waves with them as they headed into the locker room.
For starters, the one-point setback to the nation’s eighth-ranked team is 30 points better than the beating Illinois (19-14) suffered 10 days prior in Champaign.
“We proved we could play with anybody in the country,” Rayvonte Rice (11 points, seven rebounds) said.
Most important, the cramped Illini locker room, while not a jovial place, was a proud and positive one. Proud of Friday’s effort against Michigan (24-7). In good spirits because the Illini know that their season continues despite the setback. The NCAA tournament is not in the cards. Even with a win Friday, Illinois most likely would have needed to run the table here to clinch the Big Ten’s automatic berth.
Most likely, Illinois will be among the 32 teams selected Sunday to participate in the NIT. Worst-case scenario, Groce’s club continues its season in the CBI. None of the players and coaches, though, were prepared to predict where the next opportunity would come.
“There’s nothing we can really do; wait around,” said senior Joseph Bertrand, who scored nine points off the bench. “Coach is going to keep us updated and hope for the best, and whatever happens we’re ready to play.”
That Illinois is even in consideration for a postseason berth is remarkable considering the eight-game losing streak that lasted a month and saw the record drop to 13-10. But thanks in large part to the toughness the Illini have shown all season and the insertion of freshmen Kendrick Nunn (10 points) and Malcolm Hill (eight points) into the starting lineup 10 games ago, Illinois will play postseason basketball next week. They displayed that toughness battling back from a 13-point second-half deficit to lead the game in the closing seconds.
“I’m proud of the guys the way they dug themselves out of a hole from a win-loss perspective,” Groce said. “I’m not surprised it happened just because of their attitude and how hard they worked. They kept grinding.”
After the Wolverines shot 57 percent against the Illini on March 4 at State Farm Center, Illinois limited them to 44.7 percent and 33.3, respectively, in the rematch. That’s grinding, and that’s what Illinois expects to do the rest of the way.
“Whatever we get, just try to go win it. I came here to just play in any tournament, get to the postseason,” said senior Jon Ekey, who transferred from Illinois State to complete his eligibility. “With these guys and as close as we’ve gotten this year, we just want to keep playing.”
“We’re going to fight. We’re going to continue to fight regardless of where it’s at,” Abrams (12 points) said. “We’re going to go out there and give it our all.”