Tracy Abrams has it. He's the toughest player Illinois has and has had in quite some time. He was the grittiest guy and most determined player on the court Saturday night in the 33rd installment of the Braggin' Rights rivalry against Missouri.
The junior guard scored a season-high 22 points and sank two free throws with 4.6 seconds left to secure the 65-64 victory, the Illini's first win against the Tigers since 2008.
"He's a tough dude," Illini head coach John Groce said. "He's been a tough dude."
Of course Abrams had help from his friends Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey, but down the stretch Abrams' look was undeniable. Call it that of a bulldog or a boxing champ or anything else that has more will and fight than most.
Abrams converted a three-point play. He hit a jumper. He dove on a loose ball to extend a possession. He gathered the composure on the pivotal possession. He helped win the game.
"Tracy was a warrior tonight," Rice said. "He played great and made big plays for us, scored when we needed a score and found the open man. He did everything we asked him for."
Abrams converted 7 of 10 from the free throw line and grabbed six boards. For a player with a sketchy shooting past, his play up to that point left little doubt what was going to happen when he stepped to the line with the game in his hands. He knew it. And that's what made the rest of us know, too.
"I went to the line pretty confident and made it," he said.
For sure, Abrams isn't a perfect basketball player. He's taken heat for his inconsistency, poor shooting and frustrating decision-making. Some of the chiding is deserved, no doubt. But don't question the Chicago native's heart. Don't dare attack his nerve or stubbornness as it pertains to losing.
His demeanor and disposition make it near impossible to doubt Abrams. When asked to point out his favorite Abrams' move from Saturday's game, Groce didn't name an on-the-court play.
"I think what stands out to me is his disposition in huddles," Groce said. "He was so locked in and very vocal, wanted to talk in a couple of the huddles, tapped me and wants to say something. He did that a lot tonight and was really locked in. There's no question, he's made a lot of strides when it comes to vocal leadership."
Say this now, it's Abrams team. Yeah, Rice is the go-to scorer and will continue to have the final plays drawn up for him like on Saturday night. But it's Abrams mentality that fuels this bunch, and he's the one who finished the last play.
Paul and Richardson were particularly viewed as the point men in the locker room. For all they did, those guys never beat Missouri.
That stuck with Abrams and after the Saturday's game he almost looked disappointed. He didn't show the emotion the game-winning star might otherwise display.
"I definitely was thinking about those guys," he said of last year's core. "Those guys were great teammates and they never had the opportunity to get one. For us to get one and me to get one and the team to get one, it's just great for those guys. To represent the ‘I' on the shirt for those guys is an extreme blessing," he said.
That's introspective and selfless talk for a kid who has used the chip on his shoulder at times for the good of the cause and other times toward a sinking of the ship fashion.
It's clear that he's getting it now. He's always been the toughest. Now he's a maturing and humble tough guy. It's a good look. It's a winning look.
"I think that was a big privilege," he said of the win. "I can't really explain the feeling that was going on but it was an honor just be playing with those guys and to have coach Groce there cheering us on."