BY CHAD DARE
On a day when Illinois recognized its five seniors playing their final game at the Assembly Hall, a sophomore came up the biggest.
Myke Henry, a 6-foot-6 forward from Chicago Orr, came off the bench to score a season-high 12 points and he pulled down a career-high nine rebounds as the Fighting Illini pulled out a 72-65 victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
“I appreciated the way we played at the end, especially Myke Henry,’’ said Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul, who had 14 points and five assists in his final home game. “If he didn’t play the way he played, we probably wouldn’t have that kind of outcome.’’
The Fighting Illini, which improved to 21-9 overall and 8-8 in the Big Ten Conference, made all of the big plays down the stretch.
“We had a real chance to win that game and they fought back and found a way to win,’’ said Nebraska coach Tim Miles, whose team had a 57-55 lead with 6 minutes, 8 seconds remaining in the game.
But, Illinois went on a 7-2 run with Paul hitting a short jumper in the lane, followed by a 3-pointer from the corner by D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams capped it with a driving basket.
But the biggest play came a little later when Henry ran down an offensive rebound off a missed shot by Paul. After that the Illini sealed its victory with six straight free throws — four by Abrams and two by Richardson.
“I thought they showed a ton of poise late in the game,’’ Illinois coach John Groce said. “I thought we made some toughness plays. We got some stops when we needed them.
“I thought that Myke played his best game of the season, when you consider the defensive end and rebounding plus scoring.’’
Henry, who was a prolific scorer in high school, admitted there is more to his game now that just points.
“That was really one of my weaknesses coming in as a freshman,’’ said Henry of playing defense. “As I’ve progressed, I figured out that defense was part of the game.’’
Groce pointed out that Henry was actually the team’s leading rebounder in fall practice.
“The biggest thing with Myke is when he plays with a motor he is really good,’’ Groce said. “He has continued to get better and tonight, he put it all together.’’
Abrams, also a sophomore for the Illini, led the team in scoring with 16 points and he said the underclassmen were on a mission.
“I knew (Myke) had it in him all of the time,’’ Abrams said. “He just wanted to win. We all wanted to do it for the seniors.
“It’s been great playing with those guys. I’ve been with those guys for two years, for the ups and downs. I’ve learned a lot from those guys, from Brandon and D.J.’’
Paul and Richardson were the only seniors to score in double figures on Saturday as Richardson finished with 13 points, three rebounds and two steals.
“It means the world to me. It’s obviously good to go out with a win and it was an emotional night for us,’’ Paul said. “We found a way to tough it out with a win. It means a lot to me to win my last game in the Assembly Hall.’’
The other seniors honored on Saturday were Tyler Griffey (3 points), Sam McLaurin (2 points) and walk-on Kevin Berardini, who got into the game with 8.5 seconds left.
Paul spent a few minutes after the game, crouched on the floor soaking in the experience.
“I was just thinking it went by fast,’’ he said. “I was looking around to the crowd, it was orange everywhere.’’
While the victory was a nice ending for the Illini seniors, McLaurin was limited to just eight minutes with an ankle injury.
“I’m waiting for some feedback on that,’’ said Groce when asked about his condition. “He tried to go in the second half, but just couldn’t do it.’’
Nebraska was led in scoring by its guard duo of Ray Gallegos (23 points) Dylan Talley (20). But they had just three points in the final six minutes for the Cornhuskers, who fall to 13-16 overall and 4-12 in the Big Ten.
Saturday was not only a celebration for the seniors; it was also the 50th Anniversary of the first game played at the Assembly Hall.
During the contest, highlights of great moments at the Assembly Hall were shown on the video board. There was also a segment on the future renovations being planned.
“We are really excited about where the building is going,’’ Groce said.
But first, Illinois has some unfinished business this season.
With Saturday’s victory, the Fighting Illini appear to be solidly into the NCAA Tournament but with games left at Iowa on Tuesday and at Ohio State next Sunday, Illinois can still improve its tournament resumé.
“We are going to keep grinding and we are going to try to keep getting better,’’ said Groce, avoiding any type of tournament talk.
Tip off for Tuesday’s game in Iowa City is set for 6 p.m. and the game can be seen on the Big Ten Network or heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490 or WDNL-FM 102.1.