BOSTON — For a good chunk of Wednesday’s NIT opener, it appeared that Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey might play their final games in an Illinois uniform. The Terriers controlled most of the game and built a 17-point lead before the Illini stormed back to advance to Sunday’s second round at Clemson.
Rayvonte Rice and his 20 second-half points deserve a great deal of the credit, but Illinois coach John Groce deflected some of the credit to his duo of fifth-year seniors.
“Joe and Jon, I always tell them, ‘Seniors die hard.’ Those guys made big plays late in the game at both ends of the floor, and you could just see it in their eyes that they really wanted to compete and find a way, and I’m really proud of Joe and Jon for that,” Groce said.
Bertrand scored nine points off the bench, the second straight game he’s reached that total. Ekey finished with six points and three rebounds.
“Me and Jon just want to play our best basketball right now, and the whole team is playing our best basketball at the end of the season,” Bertrand said. “The guys say they’re playing for us, and I respect all the guys, and we love each other and just want to stay together as long as we can.”
Rice, who finished with a game-high 28 points, said part of his motivation in this tournament is to extend his buddies’ careers.
“I’m trying to fight for Jon and Joe, trying to make it to that next game,” Rice said.
The whole Illinois team, really, from freshmen all the way up, is playing for the old guys.
“We want to keep fighting as hard as we can for the seniors; they’re die-hard seniors,” freshman Malcolm Hill said. “The next game we lose is their last game. We don’t want it to be now. We want their last game to be in New York.”
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Ross Krause saw that his favorite school was playing a game against a school from his adopted hometown and thought it was pretty cool.
“I didn’t even know the game was going to be here in Boston. I just thought it was cool that the Illini were playing a school from Boston,” he said. “My mom was like, ‘You know they’re playing the game in Boston?’ and I was like, ‘That’s awesome. That’s where I live.’ ”
So the native of Chicago’s north suburbs brought a change of clothes to work — an Illini T-shirt and a bright orange hoodie — took off from his job as an accountant a few hours early and headed to the Boston University campus at 3 p.m., just as tickets were going on sale at the box office to secure his spot. He got a front-row seat in the main stands. He was hoping for better.
“I wanted one of those courtside seats, but they said I got here a little too late,” he said. “This is still good, though. I’m just excited to be here. I live about 10 minutes away, right between BU and BC (Boston College).”
Krause graduated from Northeastern University in 2012. Both his parents and a brother went to school at Illinois.
“We’ve got season tickets for football,” he said.
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Knowing Illinois was likely out of the running for an NCAA tournament berth short of winning the Big Ten tournament, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas kept a close eye on what was happening with the NIT field. He started out not entirely confident his team would get in. As Illinois continued to play better, he remained concerned.
“When you get into the conference tournaments and you get the conference champion losing, in this case Boston U. got an automatic bid and American goes into the Dance, if that happens too much, that starts pushing the other teams out of the NIT, and it lessens the inventory for teams like Illinois,” said Thomas, who traveled for Wednesday’s game with the team. “When you look at the fact that in the NIT we were a 2 seed, we weren’t that far off from actually being in the Big Dance even though we were never really discussed in the way of being a bubble team.”
The goal is always the NCAA tournament, but to play postseason basketball, particularly for this up-and-coming Illinois roster, is a positive for Groce and the program.
“I think it’s great for the kids to keep playing. These are kids that want to keep playing,” Thomas said. “We’ve got a young team, a lot of young kids. The way we ended the year, we’re deserving of being in the postseason and appreciative of being in the NIT.”
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The reason Illinois nearly got bounced from the NIT after just one game was wearing a white No. 1 jersey. BU’s Maurice Watson controlled the game throughout Wednesday, finishing with seven points and 12 assists as the Terriers came close to pulling the upset.
Groce said Watson reminded him of the point guard he coached at Ohio, D.J. Cooper. He spent a moment after the game with Watson outside the locker room and told him as much.
“I thought that kid was terrific,” Groce said.
When Boston University led by nine at the break, Watson had already accumulated eight assists. He entered the game averaging 6.9 per game.
“We haven’t seen that all year,” Hill said. “He can pass so well; he’s right up there with (Indiana’s) Yogi (Ferrell) and some of the quicker guys we’ve played this season. His vision is just sick, it’s disgusting. His assists in the first half, that’s impressive if someone does that in the whole game. He’s a good player.”
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The NIT means different things to every team. When Jerry Hester was on Illinois’ 1996 NIT team, there was disappointment in not making the NCAA tournament.
“We thought we had an outside chance to make the NCAAs. We went into the Big Ten season ranked 10th in the country. We beat Duke that year and ended that streak they had of winning at home and felt good going into conference play,” Hester said.
But then the injury bug hit, and Illinois faded down the stretch in what would be Lou Henson’s last season and out of the NCAAs and into the NIT.
“We were disappointed, but that whole season was a difficult situation for us,” Hester said. “Kiwane (Garris) got hurt and missed five or six games. I missed five or six games with an injury, and we just never really got that chemistry back.”
As a result, the Illini got bounced from a tournament some felt like they shouldn’t have fallen to.
This Illinois team knew for a while it wasn’t going to make the NCAAs without winning the conference tournament, so the Illini approached the NIT with a more favorable outlook than that past Illinois team and most major conference teams do these days.
“They were able to immediately shift their mind-set,” Hester said. “We were still hoping to get into the tournament. It didn’t happen. We tried to shift that mind-set, but after all the injuries, we had chemistry issues because we hadn’t played that many games all together, and that hurt us. This team is playing its best basketball of the season. We were not.”