One Tough Bunch

It isn't always pretty, but Illinois' tough-brand of basketball is fun to watch.

CHAMPAIGN – Where am I supposed to start after that?

Illinois came through to the other side victorious after a battle with Indiana, winning 83-80 in overtime to kick start Big Ten play on New Year's Eve.

There are numerous angles to get into telling this story. Rayvonte Rice had 29 points in his ‘big boy' debut. Yogi Ferrell scored 30, proclaiming himself as one of the nation's best guards in the losing effort.

John Groce's head looked ready to explode on numerous occasions on the sideline following the sound of the officials' whistles. He eventually was given a technical. Indiana coach Tom Crean had a few moments of his own, most notably going back and forth with Rice down the stretch, apparently jabbering about the Hoosiers knack for huddling even when timeouts weren't called.

The Illini missed 15 of 17 tries from the 3-point line and still won. The Hoosiers committed 23 turnovers and managed only one field goal in the final 11-plus minutes and still almost won. Joe Bertrand, Jon Ekey and Kendrick Nunn didn't score the most points, but each had seminal moments, a subtle play or two (or in Bertrand's case, a really loud dunk) that proved big when the smoke had cleared.

What all of it speaks to is how tough and together this Illinois team is. It's cliché by now. The phrase has been used for bracelets and Youtube videos and repeated by Groce a bazillion times.

But clichés become prevalent because they're the truth.

"We're not real pretty all the time, but we battle and fight, claw and scratch," Groce said. "We've got some tough guys. They're fun to coach."

It's not always fun to watch. I'm sure there are stretches of play that frustrate the heck out of you fans. But guys like Rice and Tracy Abrams are fighters, just like their coach is. Groce is the one who built the program, bringing in guys like Rice and Ekey via transfer and constructing the roster with players comprised of the mental fortitude you now see on display.

"We've got some tough dudes in our locker room," Groce said. "We take a lot of pride in that."

Crean, gracious in defeat, said he admired the way Groce has built his program and has "engrained" his players in the line of thinking winning requires.

"John is, I don't say this with anything other than the greatest respect, he's one of the best coaches in the country," Crean said. I wouldn't get comfortable in your seat anytime soon if I were you.

Illinois is in line for a lot of grind-it-out kind of games. The way the Big Ten is shaping up this season, the Illini could go to the wire with both the Ohio States and the Penn States of the conference. No game is a gimmie.

And that suits the kind of mentality the Illini have. Nothing given, everything earned.

"We fought like crazy," Crean said. "We were right there in the middle. They got to just a few more (loose balls and rebounds). That's a sign of where we've got to get to as a team. … It's a sign of where they are as a team and as a program, and I think it's going to serve them very well. That kind of hustle and intensity and effort is going to carry them a long way."

Like on Tuesday, when the Illini were facing a 59-52 deficit with just over 11 minutes to play. Indiana had all the momentum and Ferrell was well on his way to a career night.

"He was trying to find a way to win it for his team," Abrams said of Ferrell, who was 9-of-15 from the floor and drained five 3s. Ferrell gave it his best, but the toughest team was wearing orange and blue.

On offense, Rice and Abrams kept putting their head down and getting to the basket. Defensively, everything was turned into a struggle for the Hoosiers. Indiana didn't make a shot from the field in the final 6:44 of regulation. It's final seven points came at the free throw line.

"Just being together and communicating," Abrams, who had 17 points, three steals and three assists, said. "It's nothing special. It's just as simple as that, guys connected out there and eventually we find a way."

And on the final possession of the second half, the Illini stood tough again. Evan Gordan got a good look, but he wasn't ready to win, not as much as Illinois was.

"It was a shot that just didn't go in," Crean said. "It was a great look."

Overtime started and the Illini defense remained strong. Center Nnanna Egwu, who had previously missed seven of his nine shots, bagged the first bucket of the extra period.

The Illini held the lead throughout as the Hoosiers made only one basket, a Ferrell 3 with two seconds remaining.

Bertrand gathered a key offensive rebound and Ekey hustled for a steal with 25 ticks remaining.

Indiana had chances, but Illinois was too tough to let itself lose. "I mean, we've had a couple games like that already, against Mizzou and it's just the same thing, stay poised and execute," Rice said.

That's really how the story goes. And there are still 17 more of these games left.

"It's a great win and it shows our younger guys the Big Ten is a grind," Abrams said.

They won't all be as nerve-wrecking (or fun as some of us call it) as this one. But with this type of mentality and attitude, Illinois is going to position itself for a decent finish in the B1G and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

It'd be tough to bet against my last statement.


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