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After taking Valentine's Day off, the Illinois basketball team returns to practice Friday.

CHAMPAIGN – Coach John Groce put together quite a Valentine's Day on Thursday for his wife Allison.

The Illinois coach swooped his lady off her feet and whisked her away for a romantic recruiting trip together to watch junior college shooting guard Desmond Lee.

Such is life for a college coach's wife.

The two flew across the country to Hobbs, New Mexico to watch Lee, who is averaging nearly 22 points and around five rebounds and two assists a game and holds an Illinois scholarship offer. Groce snagged last minute dinner reservations "or I would have been in trouble," he said. "My wife would have divorced me."

The break in the schedule provided the Groces' a chance for some rare quality time.

"We'll probably just stare at each other," Groce said. "We haven't talked a whole lot during the season."

For the Illinois (18-8, 5-7) players, Thursday provided a full day off after winning three games in a seven day stretch.

NCAA rules stipulate at least one day be taken completely off each week, so that meant no practice, no mandatory workouts or film sessions. Only classes and a date with the training table (athletic dining hall) was firm on the schedule.

Of course given his team's stellar play of late, Groce looked at Thursday's empty basketball schedule with a long face.

"I'm disappointed we have to take a day off," he said. "We've had a heck of a stretch. We're in a rhythm right now."

The downtime was well earned and much deserved according to senior Tyler Griffey.

"We've been working very, very hard and have been focused throughout this stretch," Griffey said.

The hard work paid off, as the recent run of wins turned the season outlook around. It started with a thrilling comeback against top-ranked Indiana, with Griffey hitting a buzzer-beating layup to upset the Hoosiers.

That was followed with another come-from-behind victory three days later at Minnesota, where the Illini erased a 14-point first half deficit and won a low-scoring defensive battle.

The run was capped Wednesday with a dominating 79-59 win versus Purdue, where Illinois jumped out early and never let the Boilermakers back into the game.

After enduring a dismal January, which saw six losses in eight games, Illinois is playing its best basketball at the right time.

"I think the guys understand it's about team offense and team defense, and they've really bought into that," Groce said. "In particular over the last seven to 10 days, as you start to have some success it gives those philosophies and things we've been telling them more credibility."

With only six regular season games remaining, the Illini are entering a most critical stretch where improvements must be made to get ready for the postseason.

It's an important time. It's also a taxing time.

Groce, in his first year at Illinois, admits he made mistakes early on in his first head coaching stop at Ohio in dealing with time management and keeping his guys fresh late in the season.

He learned from that experience and adjusted accordingly.

"I think balancing knowing how long to go, how hard to practice, that's always one of the tricky things for a coach," he said. "We've done a better job as a staff of trying to gauge where guy's minds and bodies are."

The team returns to practice Friday to begin preparations for the Feb. 17 matchup at Northwestern.

Groce says he wants his team to continue to improve and not get caught up in the recent success.

"You don't to become dysfunctional with loss or swallow the poison of success," he said. "We've got to continue to stay humble and continue to keep swinging and get better every day."

Senior D.J. Richardson says the team has seen both lows and highs since Big Ten play started and the focus is on the next game ahead.

"The first day Coach came in and had a meeting with us he told there was going to be a time in the season where things are going to go wrong," Richardson said. "We did a good job of bouncing back and fighting and playing Illinois basketball. We've got a lot more to play."

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