Illinois fans and upperclassmen players alike remember the sting of losing to Illinois Chicago just a couple years ago. And the past three years, that game has always come after a tough loss to Missouri in the Braggin' Rights game.
But this year was about more than just a basketball game. For Illinois seniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, it was about breaking the curse and getting a win in a city from which half the team originates.
Several members of the Illinois team are from Chicago or the surrounding area, so this game carried a slightly bigger meaning for many of them.
So far this year, Brandon Paul, a native of north suburb Gurnee, has been the go-to guy for the Illini, averaging nearly 20 points per game and being the big play guy.
But against Auburn in what turned out to be a career day, it was the sophomore Tracy Abrams who led the charge for Illinois with 27 points, 5 assist, 8 rebounds, and most importantly to Head Coach John Groce, only one turnover.
Abrams, the Chicago native and Mount Carmel alum, has grown considerably this offseason and throughout non-conference play. The young floor general is counted upon to run the show in an offense that requires a great amount of responsibility from the point guard position.
It's easy to see how Illinois' fortunes can swing based upon the performance of a guy like Brandon Paul or DJ Richardson, but as Coach Groce pointed out after the game, tonight Tracy Abrams keyed the team's persona in more aspects than meets the eye.
But the day belonged to Abrams. His 27 points came the hard way. His 6-11 shooting from the field is already respectable, but what stood out the most was his 13-15 mark from the free throw line. That swung the advantage in Illinois' favor immensely from the stripe as the Illini shot 40 free throws to Auburn's 16 and made 27 to Auburn's 10.
Abrams not only got it done on the offensive end efficiently, he pitched in a team high 4 steals while taking care of the ball all game for Illinois.
Perhaps there is no better time for Abrams to hit his stride than right before conference play. The Big Ten is known for stiff defense, and Abrams will no doubt be tested every game. His play will be crucial to the Illini's success this year.
For the complete post-game press conference including John Groce, Tracy Abrams, and Brandon Paul, see the video below.
Pt. 1: Featuring John Groce, Tracy Abrams, and Brandon Paul:
Pt. 2: Featuring John Groce
Illinois is now 13-1 entering conference play