One of most critical stretches for Illinois came in the final minute of the first half.
The Fighting Illini went from a 3-point lead (28-25) to a 33-25 halftime advantage with two free throws by Malcolm Hill and a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Ekey.
“I thought our guys did a tremendous job with end of half execution,’’ Groce said. “They had the ball, we forced a timeout, we switched defenses and subbed and then we force a turnover.
“Then we go down, the ball gets knocked out of bounds. We execute the out-of-bounds play. It was one of the plays that we work on. Tracy did a great job. The first option was covered and Jon was option 2. (Abrams) had great poise, he didn’t panic. We were fortunate that Jon made the shot. I thought that was a big momentum swing.’’
Illinois had four guys in double figures as Rice had a game-high 18, followed by Bertrand’s 14, Abrams with 12 and Nnanna Egwu had 10.
Jordan Coleman led the Crusaders with 15, while LaVonte Dority chipped in with 12.
Next up for the Fighting Illini is a 5 p.m. contest on Sunday against the Bradley Braves at the State Farm Center.