MJ: Best, worst of Illini's season

MJ: Best, worst of Illini's season

Temperature check

A look back at the highs and lows of Illinois’ 2013-14 season.

Five best moments of the season
Rice fells Rebels

The Illini trailed by 10 at the half in their first road game of the season before Rayvonte Rice put together a Vegas performance for the ages. The Champaign native led the second-half comeback, slicing through the UNLV defense in the closing seconds and rising above two defenders for a layup to break 59-59 tie in the closing seconds. It was the first “road kill” of the season for Illinois and a coming-out party for Rice.

Braggin’ Rights return
The atmosphere and the rivalry among fans remained as intense as ever, but on the court the Illini hadn’t been holding up their end of the bargain. The Tigers had won four straight until Tracy Abrams decided he had had enough. Trailing by one with 4.6 seconds remaining, the junior stepped to the foul line and calmly buried a pair of free throws for the decisive points, setting off a wild Illini celebration and easing the pain of Kiwane Garris’ missed foul shots in a similar situation 20 years earlier.

The streak ends
The month leading up to the Feb. 9 game at Penn State was a forgettable one. Illinois had lost eight straight and the end of the season couldn’t come soon enough. Then John Groce juggled the rotation, inserting freshmen Kendrick Nunn (right) and Malcolm Hill into the starting five and the switch paid immediate dividends. Nunn (19) and Hill (11) both recorded career highs in scoring, with Nunn’s late three-pointer sealing the victory for the Illini. It served as a turning point in the season and propelled the team into the stretch run, where it won five of the last eight games in the regular season.

Ekey shot
He was fourth on the team in scoring (7.3 points per game) and third in rebounding (4.8). Still, Jon Ekey’s contributions were often times underappreciated by some. The Illinois State transfer, though, made an unforgettable mark on March 8 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, burying a three-pointer in the closing second of a tie game with an Iowa defender draped all over him in sending the Illini to a 66-63 win at the 23rd-ranked Hawkeyes. It was the first last-second game-winner of Ekey’s life and had Illinois fans conjuring up memories of Andy Kaufmann’s dagger against the Hawkeyes two decades earlier.
 
Michigan game in BTT
If Tracy Abrams’ floater at the buzzer had been a few inches longer, this might have been the top moment of a season that ended in the NCAA tournament. In the one-point loss to Big Ten champion Michigan in the conference tournament, the Illini showed their toughness, going toe to toe with a team it had lost to by 31 points 10 days prior at State Farm Center. Even in defeat, Groce’s team gave itself and fans hope that an NCAA tournament berth was possible, something that wasn’t on the radar during the eight-game losing streak.

Five worst moments of the season
Signing Day disaster

With Leron Black, Michael Finke and Quentin Snider committed, the Illinois program entered Signing Day optimistic that great things were on the horizon with prized Chicago big man Cliff Alexander set to choose between Kansas and Illinois during an ESPN signing special. “Cliffmas,” as some had dubbed it, could be the icing on the cake of an already solid class. But Snider, a four-star point guard, reneged at the last minute, opting to stay home and play for Louisville, while Alexander teased Illinois fans and coaches picking up an Illini hat before dropping it on national television for a Kansas cap. “Cliffmas” turned into black Friday.

Northwestern clunker
It’s unacceptable to some to lose to Northwestern on the hardwood at all. Score just 43 points and lose to the ‘Cats? That’s something even the most boisterous Illini fan can have a hard time recovering from. In a 49-43 loss in Evanston on Jan. 12, Illinois shot 28 percent from the floor and scored just 15 points in a first half that saw it nail only 19 percent of its field goals. It was ugly, and to make matters worse top scorer Rayvonte Rice was limited to eight points — his first game not reaching double figures. He also strained an adductor muscle, an injury that lingered for the next month.

Purdue loss
How did the Illini follow up that eyesore at Northwestern? They lost at home to a Purdue team that finished last in the Big Ten. The Illini led at the half, but the Boilermakers dominated the final 20 minutes behind big man A.J. Hammons and the Johnson brothers in front of 15,007 at State Farm Center.

Boo birds come calling
Unhappy with the seventh straight loss, this one an 81-74 setback at the hands of No. 15 Iowa, Illinois fans let the team know about their frustrations, booing them and showering them with unkind words late in the loss. “I was ticked off. People were booing. I don’t like that,” Groce said afterward. It wasn’t a good look for the Illini fans and it was something that drove conversation for the next week.

Season ends at Clemson
The freshest memory in the heads of Illinois fans is the loss to Clemson in the second round of the NIT in a game that was there for the taking. The last play of the game, in which Tracy Abrams misfired on a desperation three-pointer, will be remembered for a while as the Illini dreams of a trip to Madison Square Garden were dashed. It was the last game in the careers of Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey, both of whom left Littlejohn Arena with tears in their eyes.

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