Illinois 92, Central Michigan 73
CHAMPAIGN -- All the talk heading into this one focused on Central Michigan point guard Marcus Keene -- the nation's leading scorer -- but Illini point guard Tracy Abrams was the one that filled it up with a career-high 31 points in a 92-73 win on Saturday.
Abrams went 10-of-12 from the field and 7-of-8 from beyond the arc on his way to topping his previous career-high of 27 points against Auburn in 2012. The seven treys by the sixth-year senior also beat a previous career-high of four against McKendree last month.
This was a scoring battle out of the gates, as Central Michigan held a 16-15 lead at the first media timeout. But the Illini took over the scoring after that, as they went on a 17-0 run to open up a 32-16 lead.
Illinois led by as many as 19 in the first half with 7:49 left after a pair of free throws by Abrams. But less than a minute later, Central Michigan responded with a 16-to-2 run that made it 41-36 with 1:50 left in the half.
Abrams was there again, though, with a three to put a stop to that run. And Illinois went on a 18-to-4 run out of halftime in the first five minutes to make it 64-40. Central Michigan never got closer than 14 points away the rest of the game.
Illinois shot 53.1 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from beyond the arc with nine treys. They also dominated the glass with a 49-to-25 advantage.
And Abrams wasn't the only Illini to have a career day. Leron Black, who has been consistently outstanding, posted a career-high of 21 points. He went 9-of-13 from the field.
What it means
Illinois (8-3) able to survive the wrath of an electric, miniature-sized point guard who can flat out score -- as well as anyone in the country. Central Michigan came in with offensive firepower and a lot of confidence, but Illinois did what they were supposed to do as the home Big Ten team. After losing three straight and having their backs against the wall, the Illini have reeled off four consecutive wins in a matter of 12 days. They're one step closer to where they want to be heading into conference play with some time to get ready for BYU next Saturday, and the Braggin' Rights game to follow.
What went right
Abrams was in 'NBA Jam mode' in the first half. He went 5-of-5 from beyond the arc and 7-of-8 from the field overall for 23 points, and that came when Hill was scoreless. He finished off a very efficient performance with 31 points on just 12 shot attempts. His last shot was a corner three with less than a minute to go to eclipse the 30-mark. Heck of a day, and he's been really good since returning from New York. And how about 25-of-39 (64.1 percent) from three on the year?
Leron continues to play at a high level. The redshirt-sophomore has not only found a way to play great basketball, but he's done so with a ton of consistency during this stretch. Black's mid-range game is smooth as silk. He is automatic from the elbow. One rebound from him in 25 minutes is a little head-scratching, but not much to complain about with his game right now.
Points in the paint. Illinois utilized their size at both ends. They led the points in the paint battle 16-to-2 in the first half, and they finished with a 34-to-14 advantage on the game. Maverick Morgan had his first double-digit scoring outing since Game Three of this season with his 11 points.
Central Michigan shot just 35.3 percent in the first half and 36.8 percent on the game. They got to around their season average of 13 threes, but it took them 38 attempts. The Illini allowed them to get some easy looks, and the Chippewas missed quite a few. As a whole, Illinois' defense was improved from Tuesday. Keene and Braylon Rayson combined for 70 points in their last game against Green Bay. They had 43 points on 39 shots against the Illini.
Rebounding battle. Illinois was dominant on the glass with a 49-to-25 advantage. That is the type of response Illini head coach John Groce was looking for after an underwhelming performance there on Tuesday. Mike Thorne Jr. had 11 rebounds, which was the first time this season he's posted double-digit boards against a D-I opponent. Morgan and Michael Finke also added seven rebounds a piece.
What went wrong
Illinois went on a 17-0 run in the first half to double the Chippewas' score (32-16). But when they had them down, they couldn't put them out -- as Central Michigan cut it to five before the end of the half.
The Illini led by 24 with 9:18 left in the game. At that point, you'd want to continue to play well and get the bench guys some extra minutes. But Central Michigan cut the lead to 14 with less than four minutes to go, as the Illini were coasting a bit too much.
Hill didn't have a point in the first half. He was 0-of-4 from the field in 14 minutes. But Hill hit four of his final seven shots to still manage to post double digits with 10 points, five boards and three assists.
The Illini will have a week off from game action with finals until they head up to the United Center next Saturday to take on BYU (6-3). The Cougars are led by sophomore big man Eric Mika, who is averaging 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game on the season. BYU suffered a close defeat to Valparaiso, and they also fell against USC and Utah Valley (bad loss). Illinois won nine regular season games in a row at the United Center from 1999 to 2006. Since then, they are 4-5 in regular season contests -- including a close win against an awful UIC squad last year.