Back on Track

ATLANTA - Illinois responded Sunday, crushing Auburn to get over the painful loss at Georgia Tech earlier in the week.

ATLANTA – "Hey, Ray one more."

Tracy Abrams wanted Rayvonte Rice to make another pass and yelled out his take. "My bad," Rice responded.

With things going their way for much of action against Auburn, this particular Illini possession would work itself out.

A few passes later, the ball found Abrams and he hit one of the season-high 12 team treys to extend an already blowout-style lead.

The play was a perfect example of the flow the Illini had, what Illinois coach John Groce said was, "harmony, for lack of a better word."

It was a crushing kind of performance, as the Illini held the Tigers to 26 percent shooting in the first half and got 22 points from Rice and 17 from Abrams, defeating Auburn 82-61 in Philips Arena.

"Just playing with pace more than anything, just being out there playing and not thinking too much," Abrams said.

This looked and felt much better than Illinois' first trip to the Georgia capital. The Illini dropped a 12-point lead late at Georgia Tech on Tuesday, losing their first game of the season due to what Groce labeled as pathetic execution on both offense and defense.

Abrams, who also posted seven rebounds and five assists, felt under the weather in the days prior to Sunday's game, but said a deeper illness was caused by the loss to the Yellow Jackets. "Yeah, that did make me sick," he said. "I definitely don't like losing, but you know, that's over."

The first 20 minutes Sunday provided a complete reversal of the last image of the Illini, those painful looking final seven minutes five days prior.

Groce said he would give his team an A both offensively and defensively for its play in that first half, where the Illini built a 41-17 lead by the break.

"I thought we really had it going," Groce said. "I thought that was the best 20 minutes we have played all year."

Late second half snags on defense and a couple sloppy turnovers didn't produce the ultimate finish, but Groce was pleased overall with his team's mental toughness to get right and lock in after a tough defeat.

"I thought the thing I learned the most was the response that our guys had from our loss Tuesday night to Georgia Tech," Groce said. "I thought we were ready to go. The leadership deserves a lot of credit for that."

Rice didn't score in the first 16 minutes of action, but ended up with eight points by halftime and hit 8 of his final 10 shots to pace the team.

"We were just sharing the ball," he said. "We finished the first half with 15 field goals and 10 of them were assisted. My teammates did a good job finding me in the second half."

The scoring seemed out of character given that the Illini made over 50 percent from deep (12-23) and took only five free throws. That was fine, according to Groce, who said the deeper shot selection and lack of drives to the basket, the previous bread and butter to this point in the season, were what was given up by the Tigers defense.

Senior forward Jon Ekey, who added 14 points and six rebounds, said crisp ball movement led to good looks at the basket.

"We could move the ball," he said. "We were executing plays that coach wanted us to. We were able to do the things he was emphasizing the past couple of days."

The Illini tripped to Atlanta twice in one week, blowing the first and dominating the second.

With only four out-of-conference games remaining, including contests in similar venues against Missouri and Oregon, passing tests like this mean all that much more.

The Big Ten slate awaits and will be here soon enough. The events of Sunday provided a positive feeling moving forward.

"I thought it was a real mature response by our group," Groce said.

"The record is going to take care of itself. We can't control that. I tell our guys that all the time. But we can control getting better and working and having that attitude and that effort."


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