ICYMI: Illinois vs. IPFW
Nov. 30, 2013
By Lexi Shurilla, fightingillini.com staff writer
Illinois 57, IPFW 55
Abrams Wills Illini to Victory
Junior Tracy Abrams' "junkyard-dog" defensive leadership and gutsy offensive performance in the second half were instrumental in the Illini's 57-55 win over IPFW Friday night at State Farm Center. Abrams finished with 15 points (12 in the second half) and four steals (three in the second half), making monster plays down the stretch to help the Illini improve to 7-0. Illinois head coach John Groce's mantra of toughness and togetherness is certainly making an impact.
"This guy right here," Groce said of Abrams. "Without him, tonight we probably don't get it done. He willed us. He had that look in his eyes. Now other guys made plays, Ray made some big plays as well, but Tracy's leadership, the way he was vocal and his ability to come back from a tough call, or tough play, it didn't faze him. I was so proud of the way that he led. From where he's come when I first got here, till now, Jiminy Christmas. He's a big part of what we do."
Trailing by 11 just before halftime, Abrams gave the Illini a boost heading into the locker room with a bucket and free throw just before the halftime buzzer. Then, early in the second half, a steal by Abrams helped give Illinois the spark it needed after Abrams flipped the ball to Jon Ekey, who nailed a three-pointer and gave the home crowd a reason to jump to their feet. Sparked by Abram's play the Illini went on a 17-5 run to take a 41-40 lead at the 13:31 mark of the second half. The game was back and forth the rest of the way.
"I feel like Coach has done a great job of helping me grow up as a player, and as a person off the court," Abrams said. "You've just got to always be open to learn. [Coach] talks about being lifetime learners. I feel like that's a great opportunity to be open minded."
The Cardiac Kids
For the second straight game, Illinois overcame a double-digit deficit and found a way down the stretch to get a win in the closing seconds, gaining valuable experience in how to win close games even when they're not at their best.
After coming off of a come-from-behind road win against UNLV on Tuesday, Illinois got a taste of what it's like to come back home with an unlikely welcome from a fiery IPFW team. IPFW was winning the rebounding battle and loose ball scrambles throughout the first half as the Illini struggled with 40 percent shooting from the field and 11 turnovers. The Mastodons led by eight at halftime, 35-27.
After an Illini surge to tighten the game up, the second half turned into a boxing match, with the lead going back and forth between the Illini and Mastodons nearly every minute. The game was still up for grabs in the final minute with the Illini clinging to a 55-53 lead and the crowd was on its feet.
That was when junior transfer Rayvonte Rice, fresh off a game-winning shot in the final seconds at UNLV, sealed the game with a steal and a pair of free throws with eight seconds left in the game.
"We've been pretty poised as a team, as a unit, throughout the season," Abrams said. "Coach did a great job at halftime of just letting us know you can't win it back in one play. So I just kept that mindset and kept feeding it to the guys. I just kept letting it be said and eventually that worked out for us as a unit."
Rice continues to be an offensive juggernaut as he led the Illini with 17 points. Rice is the first Illini newcomer to score in double figures in each of his first seven games since Kiwane Garris did so in his first 10 games as a freshman in 1993-94. Joseph Bertrand also finished in double figures with 11 points in the ballgame.