Tough Against Tough

Sunday's NIT second round match-up pitted the Illini against a team just like them.

Clemson, S.C. — It felt like Illinois came face to face with a mirror on Sunday.

The Clemson Tigers were just like the Illini.

Always tough to score on, at times frustratingly hard to watch on offense and undeniably resilient as all get out.

Talent and options, sure, both sidelines had a good share of limitations. But heart, desire and effort was abundant in Littlejohn Coliseum for Sunday's pre-noon tipoff.

Both teams, flawed as they were, tried to out-tough each other.

"That's a tough-minded hard fought group to play against," Tigers coach Brad Brownell said.

With squads like this, in the NIT instead of the Big Dance, it can sometimes be hard to categorize between a group that can't quite win and one that refuses to lose.

The Illini relished the toughness it took to win games like this. But on Sunday, Clemson executed better, winning 50-49 in a game that had all the excitement of the bigger and better tournament that's more appropriately in the spotlight.

This wasn't the Boston Terriers of the Patriot League, the team the Illini beat in the opening round with help from a strong Illini showing in the stands.

Clemson sold out the 10,000 seat arena that's set for a makeover next offseason and made sure the atmosphere for the early start wasn't the morgue many outsiders guessed it might be.

"I had goosebumps on my neck because I was excited to see that kind of support for our program," Brownell said.

Of course, Illinois wasn't scared or phased. With renovations to State Farm Center underway and forcing the higher-seeded team on the road, the Illini hopped on a plane to tiny Anderson, S.C. They did a walkthrough in the parking lot of the hotel on Friday and ordered pizzas after the pre-game dinner didn't have big enough portions.

Whatever it took, the next move always the focus.

"We enjoy playing on the road," Illinois coach John Groce said. "Our guys enjoy it. They love the challenge."

That's the truth. The Illini entered having won four straight road games. This home court advantage featured a different type of team though. It was an Illinois-type team.

That much was clear when it was all said and done.

"They just fight, much like us," Brownell said. "I think we're very similar teams. Both defend, both don't quit, both keep battling back."

With all things elsewhere seemingly equal, another slow start and similarly trending spotty shooting did the Illini in.

The Tigers built a 28-19 halftime lead as the Illini struggled to get much going on offense.

The 3s weren't falling and drives to the bucket were thwarted by the Tigers physicality.

Just like against Boston, the Illini found themselves down by nine at the break.

The last 20 minutes happened exactly like many before in March did.

"I was really proud of their response," Groce said.

Rayvonte Rice scored 13 of his 15 points in the final period, aggressively finishing drives to the bucket. When the game got close, senior Jon Ekey nailed two treys, giving the Illini their first lead of the game.

It was the signature toughness, the ability to withstand a tough punch and reset to lunge back.

"They'd just get up and make a play," Brownell said.

This was pretty common for the Illini in March. A win at the buzzer at Iowa. Pulling away from Indiana in the second half and giving Michigan all it could handle in Indianapolis. Overcoming a 17-point deficit at Boston.

Only this time, Clemson made the winning plays.

Inside the final minute, Rice missed a shot that would have extended the lead. Abrams took an ill-advised 25-footer that missed badly. And Clemson's Rod Hall hit a driving lay-in.

In a game that close, those three plays were the difference.

"At the end of the day if you just knock in 7 for 21 (from 3) it may have been a different result, but again give their defense credit," Groce said.

In the end, Illinois' final game was somewhat indicative of the season as a whole. The Illini climbed back after stumbling, fought hard to the end and came up short in exciting fashion.

"We knew it was going to be tough," Rice said. "We knew it would come down to the wire… We've been coming from behind all year. We've been in situations like that all year."

Most counted the Illini out near mid-February. Eight-game losing streaks will do that. But the Illini finished the season winning six of nine and playing near the ceiling that Groce projected for this group.

That's success in his book.

"Because of the quality of players and coaches and everyone that's involved with Illinois, we were able to weather that and ultimately play our best at the end in back to back years," Groce said. "That's always what you want.

"Are we where we need to be or where we want to be at this juncture? No. We'll evaluate every area in the spring, just like we always do. We're trying to find a way to get better at every single area."


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