CHAMPAIGN — In previous seasons, Illinois men’s basketball coach John Groce would prepare a script of his team’s first exhibition game.
This season, under new NCAA rules allowing teams more practice time, Groce didn’t believe he needed one for the Fighting Illini exhibition debut against the McKendree Bearcats.
About nine minutes into Thursday’s game at the State Farm Center, the second-year Illinois coach got to see something that he was hoping might happen. His Fighting Illini were looking up at a 21-10 deficit with 11 minutes, 27 seconds left in the first half.
Ultimately, Illinois got things quickly corrected, going on a 27-9 run in the final 6:50 of the first half and carrying that momentum over into the second half as the Fighting Illini cruised to a 101-66 victory over the NCAA Division II McKendree Bearcats.
“No one wants to get down by 11, but I was curious to see if they could fight through it,’’ Groce said. “You noticed that I didn’t call a timeout. I wanted to see how this team would respond. We hung in there, and stayed the course.
“We made some young and dumb plays and we need to clean those up. But overall, this was better than we were last Thursday in the Orange-Blue Scrimmage.’’
After tweaking his ankle in the first few minutes, Illinois junior guard Tracy Abrams came back to score a team-high 16 points to go along with three assists.
“I had to go get it re-taped and I was fine,’’ said Abrams, who also saw his backup, freshman Jaylon Tate score 13 points and dish out three assists coming off the bench.
Tate was on the floor, along with fellow freshmen Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill and Austin Colbert, during the Illini 12-2 run in the final 2:50 of the first half. Senior Joseph Bertrand was the only non-freshman on the court during that stretch.