BY CHAD DARE
---- — 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.
“He played pretty good, but there is always room for improvement,’’ Abrams said. “It’s good for the team that those guys played so well during that stretch. We need all the guys that lace it up and it was good for them to get that experience.
“The more chances that they get to play, the better it will help our team for the long run.’’
Another positive from Thursday’s scrimmage for Illinois was the fact that the Illini outrebounded the Bearcats 46-29 and fifth-year senior Jon Ekey had four of his six rebounds on the offensive end. Bertrand was the leading rebounder with eight.
“That’s my job,’’ Ekey said. “I have to be able to go in there and get a rebound or get a tip out like I did a few times tonight. I just have to try and get my hands on the ball.’’
In addition to his rebounds, Ekey also had 12 points and a block for Illinois.
In all, Illinois got production from all 11 players that we were eligible to play on Thursday night. Transfers Aaron Crosby, Darius Paul and Ahmad Starks will not be eligible until next season for the Illini.
McKendree, who is currently making the transition from an NAIA school to an NCAA Division II program, made five of its eight 3-pointers during the 21-10 run in the first 8 minutes, 33 seconds.
“They were just hitting good shots,’’ Ekey said.
Bearcats coach Harry Stratham, in his 48th season with the school from Lebanon, could not have been happier with the way his team played in the first half, especially the first 15 minutes.
But things changed in the final 25 minutes as Illinois outscored McKendree 74-34 over that stretch.
“We expected a lot from Illinois,’’ said Stratham, who was a graduate assistant at Illinois in 1960. “I think they are going to be good. They have a lot quickness, balance and athleticism.
“As we broke down, they started driving the rim. The middle defense, we didn’t shut it off.’’
The Illini behind Abrams, Tate, Bertrand and Rayvonte Rice, who had 13 points, took advantage of getting into the middle of the Bearcats defense. Additionally, Illinois picked up the pace, outscoring McKendree 10-2 in fast break points.
“I thought our defense led to our opportunities on the offensive end,’’ said Groce, who team forced 14 turnovers. “We were playing at that tempo and we only had eight turnovers. That’s a good sign.’’
Clinton Happe led the Bearcats with 15 points, while Jeremy Price had 12 and Mike DiGregorio finished with 10.
Illinois is idle until their Sunday, Nov. 3 exhibition game against Northwood University out of Michigan. Tip off is set for 5 p.m. as the Illinois women will play Cardinal-Stritch in an exhibition game that day starting at 1 p.m.