CHAMPAIGN – Some travelers lose their luggage and others misplace their sanity while visiting Las Vegas.
Illinois lost its shooting touch and its rebounding edge.
But because Tracy Abrams and Ray Rice never lost their willingness to fight, Illinois improved to 7-0 Friday night, coming from behind to edge Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne 57-55 in a basketball game that had a State Farm Center crowd of 15,638 standing for the final few minutes.
Fresh from its victory Tuesday night over Nevada-Las Vegas, Illinois came out Friday looking like it had a doozy of a Sin City hangover.
The Illini fell behind 35-27 at the half and heard it from coach John Groce, who said they weren’t measuring up to the toughness IPFW was showing.
But Abrams set a different second-half tone and had 12 of his 15 points and three of his four steals to ignite a second-half surge that had the outcome teetering in the balance.
IPFW led 51-50 but when Abrams scored on a drive to the basket with 3:08 to go, Illinois inched back in front.
IPFW recaptured the lead when Illini center Nnanna Egwu was called for goal tending with 2:58 to go.
Then, after Jon Ekey blocked the shot of 6-9, 295-pound Steve Forbes, Abrams hit a whirling 15-foot jumper that somehow bounced in, giving Illinois the lead again, 54-53 with 2:03 to play.
It stayed that way until there was less than a minute to play. When the massive Forbes took the ball to the basket with a chance to give IPFW the lead again, he was whistled for his fifth foul and went to the bench with 33.8 seconds to play.
IPFW fouled Joe Bertrand with 26.4 seconds left and Bertrand made one of two free throws to push the Illini lead to 55-53.
With Forbes out of the game, IPFW tried to run a play for leading scorer Luis Jacobo. But as Jacobo tried to make himself available for a pass, Illinois’ Ray Rice anticipated the play and stole the ball.
Jacobo fouled Rice, who made both free throws with 7.5 seconds to go. That pushed the Illini lead to 57-53.
Illinois survived one final basket by IPFW’s Pierre Bland and held on.
Groce slapped Abrams on the back and saluted the junior point guard for setting a tone that teammates responded to in the second half.
“This guy right here, without him we probably don’t get it done,” Groce said. “He willed us. He had that look in his eyes.
“His leadership, the way he was vocal. I gave him a hug after the game because I was so proud of him. From where he was when I first got here until now – Jiminy Christmas.
“I was proud of the way our guys responded to a couple of things I said at halftime and part of that was (Abrams). He’s an extension of what I want said and tonight he did that at the highest level since I’ve coached him. The dude is a winner.”
Rice led Illinois with 17 points. Abrams had 15 and Bertrand scored 11.
Each team survived troubles at the free throw line. Illinois made just 13 of 23, but IPFW was worse, making just two of 13 free throws.
Jacobo led IPFW, which is 6-3. The three losses are by a combined total of four points, which is frustrating for coach Tony Jasick.
“This isn’t a fluke,” Jasick said. “This is the way we’ve played.
“When everyone looked at this game on the schedule there were probably about 15 people who thought we had a chance – the 14 players in our locker room and me. So you’re disappointed when the opportunity is right there.”
Illinois goes back on the road for its next game – a Tuesday night encounter against Georgia Tech in Atlanta. The game (6:15 p.m., ESPN2) is part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
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