Illinois coach John Groce was a little apprehensive heading into Friday night's game with Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne. The Mastodons had lost two games - one to the Dayton Flyers -- by two points combined.
His nerves were well founded. Illinois overcame a miserable shooting night to escape with a 57-55 win over IPFW, and keep its record perfect at 7-0.
"I thought, when I looked at their film, woo, this is a good team," Groce said. "I thought they were going to be the best execution team that we have played so far. And they were. We tried everything we could to tell our guys that this is a good team. We beat a good basketball team tonight."
Illinois trailed by eight at halftime, cut the lead to five on a Jon Ekey 3-pointer but gave it right back when Luis Jacobo, who led the Mastodons with 15 points, made a 3 and a baseline jumper on two consecutive possessions.
But the Illini's Tracy Abrams scored six straight points with about 16 minutes to go in the game. Then hit a twisting, turning prayer as the shot clock expired before hitting a turnaround jumper to make it 54-53 with 2 minutes to go.
"I was so proud of the way that (Abrams) led the team tonight," Groce said. "He has come so far from the time that I got here. Jiminy Christmas. We came off a big road win (over UNLV in Las Vegas) on Tuesday and I didn't think the guys were real good in practice, and they played like that in the first half. But I was proud of the way Tracy led us back. I thought that we were real good in the second half, especially Tracy."
The first half was a nightmare for the Illini, who turned the ball over 11 times and trailed 35-27 at the break. The Mastodons scored 14 points off of turnovers in the first 20 minutes while also outrebounding Illinois, 17-14.
Steve Forbes, a hefty 6-foot, 9-inch junior, was tough to guard for the Illini before the break. Forbes scored eight in the first half off Illinois' 6-11 Nnanna Egwu on post moves in the block. Jacobo and Mo Evans added eight points each as well in the first half.
Pierre Bland added 12, Evans and Forbes had 11 points each for IPFW. Mastodons coach Tony Jasick was proud of his team but disappointed in the outcome.
"I like our team. This isn't a fluke," Jasick said. "I am disappointed in the way we handled a few situations. I think the free throws were the difference in the game. You can't allow the outside factors on the road to hurt you and we were very average in the way we handled the details."
The tough shooting for the Illini caused little consternation among the players, especially Abrams.
"We've been pretty poised as a unit this season," Abrams said. "Coach told us at halftime that we can't get it back in one play, just keep going and it will come. You can't bring it back and press rewind and do it all over. I'm just glad that we can learn from a win."
Abrams and Rice going into the lane and drawing contact was a big difference in the second half.
"They became much more aggressive on the offensive end and with the way the new rules are that is the way to play it," Jasick said. "That was a difference."
Rice made a big defensive play late when he stole the ball at half court, then made both free throws with 7.5 seconds left, pushing the Illini lead to four, 57-53.
Bland made a driving layup to cut the score to 57-55 and then stole the inbounds in the backcourt but the Mastodons couldn't get a shot off before time expired.