CHAMPAIGN – Saturday’s game against Nebraska was a microcosm of what Illinois’ season has been like. After starting the game well, the Illini struggled, but regained the lead with a bit of toughness and pulled out a 72-65 win. The win was Illinois’ eighth in Big Ten play and virtually locked up an NCAA tournament berth – which is not to say that coach John Groce was counting it as a given.
“I just know (winning eight) is better than being 7-9,” he said. “We’re going to keep grinding and getting better.”
Illinois’ (21-9, 8-8) bench helped pull the team through a surprising challenge from Nebraska (13-16, 4-12). The Cornhuskers shot 45 percent overall and 50 percent from three on Saturday, but got zero points from their bench. The Illini received 38 bench points on Saturday, including a team-high 16 from Tracy Abrams.
On a night to honor the seniors, it was the sophomores who stole the show. Abrams, Myke Henry (12 points, nine rebounds) and Nnanna Egwu (10 points, five rebounds) were the catalysts for Illinois as they closed out the home schedule.
In the post-game press conference both Groce and the players were full of compliments for Henry.
“We needed Myke today to play the way he played,” Groce said.
“If Myke didn’t play the way he played we wouldn’t have had this outcome,” Brandon Paul said.
Henry accepted the praise humbly, explaining that he has benefitted on defense by working with the new coaching staff, particularly Dustin Ford.
“Rebounding was a weakness coming in as a fresh, but as I’ve progressed I’ve figured out the defense,” Henry said.
At tip-off, though, everything was going Nebraska’s way. The Huskers missed just one shot in the opening four minutes, helping them gain a 9-6 lead. The visitors had trouble retaining possession, however, turning the ball over five times in the first eight minutes.
A steal and layup from Henry just before the under-12 media timeout helped Illinois overcome the opening deficit. His effort sparked a 9-2 run, putting the Illini seven points clear of Nebraska, 22-15.
The guests were pesky, though, responding with an 8-2 run of their own to close the gap to one point. Ray Gallegos, in particular, was a thorn in the side of the Illini early on. The guard had nine points in the first 12 minutes, giving his counterpart, D.J. Richardson fits on defense.
“We did a lot of things, we changed coverages in man-to-man to try and stymie them…we went zone for a couple possessions,” Groce said. “Their guards were a handful.”
The Huskers would work their way back to a tie as the clocked ticked below three to play in the first half on a three from Dylan Talley, making the score 28-28. Over the next two minutes the teams traded baskets, with Nebraska matching each Illinois effort. In the waning seconds of the half, however, it was a Tracy Abrams three-pointer with two seconds left in the half that made the difference.
Abrams’ three gave him eight points for the half--tied with Richardson for the team lead--and sent Illinois to the lockers ahead 35-32. Gallegos and Talley each had 11 points for Nebraska at the break.
The intensity carried over for both teams after intermission. Nebraska was first on the board, scoring within 10 seconds of the restart, but Illinois kept in front, albeit narrowly.
Nebraska eked its way into the lead after a steal and layup by Talley with 12:30 to play. From there, the lead flip-flopped to the Illini with a Henry three-pointer and right back to the Huskers when Gallegos answered with a three of his own.
Sloppy defense and poor ball-handling were to blame for Nebraska retaking the lead. After coughing up the ball just twice in the first half, Illinois turned it over five times in the first eight minutes of the second half.
The Huskers held the lead for several minutes, but were clearly suffering from fatigue. Midway through the half, Nebraska coach Tim Miles would call for his team to hold the ball to run the clock down and save their legs.
But as the game drew within five minutes of the final buzzer, Illinois started to take advantage of the leggy visitors. A strong drive through the lane for a layup by Paul followed by a three from the corner by Richardson propelled Illinois to a 60-57 lead. A baseline drive from Abrams on the next possession put the Illini further in front with 3:59 to play.
Abrams drive was a turning point in the game, giving the Illini more confidence, but the outcome was never out of reach. Gallegos continued to play like a man possessed, hitting a three late in the game to keep Nebraska close, 64-62. Gallegos finished with 23 and Talley had 20.
Gallegos’ three was answered by a lovely finger roll from Paul, however, making it a two-possession game with 2:36 left. From there, the Illini defense held firm, sending the seniors out of Assembly Hall with a win in their final home game. The victory was sweet for Paul, but he felt his work was far from over.
“We have two games left, and we don’t know who we get in the Big Ten tourney, so we have to come to play,” the senior guard said.
Illinois’ penultimate game of the season comes Tuesday night at Iowa, with tip-off scheduled for 6 p.m.