BY JIM COTTER
The 12th ranked Fighting Illini squandered a double digit lead, but still hung on to defeat the Auburn Tigers 81-79 on Saturday afternoon at the United Center in Chicago.
The Illini — who led throughout the game except for a brief stretch in the first half — led by as much as 11 points, but saw that lead dwindle to a single point as Auburn connected on their shots while Illinois went cold, missing both shots and free throw attempts to allow the Tigers back into the game.
Tracy Abrams led the Illini in scoring with a career-high 27 points, and also dished out seven assists and grabbed seven rebounds. Abrams, a sophomore from Chicago, brushed off the impressive point total in favor of the satisfaction that the win gave him and his teammates.
“It didn’t really mean that much to me, getting all of those points,” Abrams said after the game. “I was happy for Brandon (Paul) and D.J. (Richardson), and all the seniors, because that was their first win in this building.”
The win over Auburn broke a three-game losing streak for the Illini at the United Center and also gives the Illini a final pre-conference record of 13-1 heading into the grueling Big Ten slate, which begins next week.
Illini head coach John Groce has started his Illinois tenure as one of the most successful coaches in the history of the program.
Groce, when asked about his team’s performance against Auburn, summed it up in a few words.
“I thought that was one of the grittiest games that we scored 80 points in. Normally when you think of gritty performances, you think of games that are in the 40’s or 50’s, not the way things went today,” Groce said.
Paul, who scored 13 points in the game, but was held without a 3-point field goal, thought the win was especially satisfying, given the fact that he is from north suburban Gurnee and won for the first time in the United Center.
“It felt good to get the win, and for guys like myself, Tyler (Griffey), and the other seniors, it’s out first win here,” Paul said after the game.
Griffey and Richardson each scored eight points, while Joseph Bertrand added seven. The Illini made 27 of 40 free throw attempts, including some clutch tosses by Abrams down the stretch. Abrams finished 13 of 15 from the line, and as it turned out, they needed every single one of them.
Groce was asked after the game if his expectations have changed since the Illini’s big start.
“Honestly, I didn’t have any expectations coming into this season, but all I know is that from my previous time in the league, the Big Ten will be tough, especially this year,” Groce said.
This will not be the only time that the Illini will take the floor at the United Center, because the 2013 Big Ten Tournament returns to Chicago for the first time since 2007.
“I love playing in Chicago, and dating back to my time as an assistant in the league, the United Center has always been a great place to play,” Groce said of his memories of the building. “It really doesn’t matter what has happened in the past, all we are concerned about is the present time, trying to get better, taking it one day at a time, one game at a time.”
Auburn, who falls to 5-7 with the loss, was led in scoring by Frankie Sullivan, who had 21 points. Rob Chubb and Allen Payne added 13 and 10 points, respectively for the Tigers, who connected on 11-of-23 attempts beyond the arc.
The Illini once again lost the battle of the boards, getting out-rebounded by a 39 to 31 margin. However, the Illini only committed 11 turnovers to Auburn’s 20.
Up next for the Illini is the start of the Big Ten season on Wednesday when they travel to Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind. to battle the Purdue Boilermakers.
The Boilermakers are 6-6 on the season and defeated William & Mary 73-66 on Saturday in West Lafayette. Game time Wednesday night is scheduled to tip off at 7:30 p.m. central time, and will be televised on the Big Ten Network, and on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1 as well as statewide on the Illini Sports Network.