The story during the Illini’s strong finish to the regular season was freshman Kendrick Nunn. But Thursday, in Illinois’ first-round game of the Big Ten Tournament, it was all about veteran Tracy Abrams.
The junior carried the Illini down the stretch and finished with a season-high 25 points as the Illini emerged victorious, 64-54, over the Indiana Hoosiers in the conference tournament’s opening game.
Abrams was tremendous, particularly in the second half, splashing home timely 3-pointers and forcing the issue by attacking the basket. He connected on 8-of-16 from the field, 2-of-5 from 3-point range and 7-of-9 from the free-throw line. He also had seven rebounds, two assists and a block to go along with the big point total.
The 25-point outburst was the most for Abrams since Dec. 29, 2012, when he scored 27 in a non-conference game against Auburn.
It was a somewhat out-of-nowhere performance from the Illinois vet, who had struggled at the close of the regular season. He scored a total of just 22 points in the last four games, and he had hit double digits in scoring just thrice in the Illini’s last nine games.
“I’m positive all the time, and I can’t worry about what I’ve been doing the last games,” Abrams said in a postgame interview on Big Ten Network. “I’m just trying to take it one game at a time. Obviously I had a good night tonight. Just got to keep building off that.”
It was the second straight big game for Abrams in the Big Ten Tournament. Last season, Abrams had 16 for the Illini in their quarterfinal loss to these same Hoosiers.
“I’ve been through this before, and one thing I learned is you can’t focus on the past game,” Abrams said, drawing on his conference tourney experience. “I just try to keep preaching to my guys, ‘Live one game at a time.’ Win or loss, we’ve just got to go out and keep fighting.”
The next Big Ten Tournament game for Abrams and the Illini will be a tough one, to say the least. The ninth-seeded Illini have a quarterfinal date with top-seeded Michigan on Friday. It hasn’t been long since Illinois was throttled by the regular-season champs, 84-53, in Champaign.
But Abrams said there’s plenty that the team can change from that loss.
“We can be tough. We weren’t tough that game, we weren’t ourselves. We know that,” Abrams said. “We know what we’ve got to do tomorrow, so it’s a matter of us going out there and executing what we need to do.”