'Dude's a Winner'

You want to talk about Tracy Abrams' shooting? Better change the subject.

CHAMPAIGN – You want to talk about Tracy Abrams' poor shooting?

He's sitting at 32.5 percent on the season.

You want to talk about his slow starts? Like when failed to score in the first 19:57 of Illinois' 57-55 win over IPFW on Friday.

Go for it. Just don't bring that noise near the ears of Illinois coach John Groce.

"Everyone wants to talk about his shooting, you can shove that wherever you want to shove it," Groce said.

The Illini made it through against a team-you-should-be-knowing in the Mastodons from the Summit League, coming back from an 11-point first half deficit to claim a seventh straight win.

It was Abrams who drove his heart into the task. He scored his first three points with three ticks left in the first half, driving to the basket and adding a free throw.

He continued his mission out of the break, scoring 12 more while generating the energy and leadership necessary to win a game that might otherwise get away.

Groce hugged his junior guard and captain immediately following the game.

"Without him tonight we probably don't get it done," Groce said. "He willed us. He had the look in his eyes."

Abrams has stared poor shooting in the face all season, taking each next shot as if the last 100 went in. The stats, including only four makes out of 23 tries on treys, say don't do it. That's not the way Abrams sees it though.

"I mean, you can't go back and press rewind and do it all over," he said.

And so on he's surged. He missed 10 of his 12 shots against UNLV earlier this week. Didn't matter. He jumped on four loose balls and dished out the passes that led to the game-tying and winning buckets.

On Friday he missed all four of his 3-point attempts.

No worries. He attacked the rim all second half and added a season-high four steals.

"Coach always talked to me about just being positive, just letting stuff play out and just let it be," Abrams said. "I kind of kept that mindset."

This isn't necessarily the way the Chicago native behaved in the past. He'd let things get to him, carry poor performances in his mind for longer than he should. Sometimes it would last a play or two, other times it would linger for days. Since Groce took over though, Abrams has developed into a mentally tough leader. Their one-on-one talks have pushed him in the right direction.

"I feel like coach has done a great job helping me grow up as a player and has a person on the court," Abrams said. "Just got to always be open-minded. We talk about being life-time learners. I feel like this is a great opportunity to be open-minded."

Groce says he loves having a fighter like Abrams in his corner. He agrees that the toughness and energy Abrams displays runs through the rest of the team. His mentality pulls the team where it needs to go. That's happening.

"He's an extension of what I want said and what I want echoed," Groce said. "…My gosh, that's such a valuable thing.

"Dude's a winner. He wins. I'm living with that."

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