However, since I'm a guy who is hard to buy for (what do you buy a
guy who has everything?), there was still time to try to surprise me
for my birthday. As I had said in my previous article, written just
before the Illini's last nonconference game, I really didn't know
what to expect with this year's team. Even after a league-opening
win, I still don't!
But don't mistake that as any complaint from
me, as there was likely not a happier soul in the Assembly Hall on
New Year's afternoon than yours truly. I mean a victory over Indiana
is always the perfect gift! And it set off and set up the best New
Year's Eve celebration that I have had in years.
But as our own Greg Taylor uttered along press row, we always
have to do it the hard way. First we were playing well in the first
half, and then our bigs decided to get into foul trouble. Then we
woke up, made a nice run and had a little cushion. Then out of
nowhere Illini coach John Groce was called for a technical foul
(btw, when the ref came over to the table, he said it was because
Groce was out of the coach's box? What? Was coach Crean ever even in
the coaching box Tuesday? And for that matter, has any coach been in
the box all season? Just a thought — sorry for the rant ...)
Then we finally had a three-point lead and I was hoping to take a
breath at halftime, only to watch IU's Will Shehey nail a 3 to knot
the score at 39 going into intermission.
Then things really got bad. We watched IU point guard Yogi Ferrel
blow up on his way to a 30-point performance, and before you could
say, "What are the new rule points of emphasis this season?" the
Illini were staring up at a seven-point deficit. It did not look
good. And once again I wondered how it is that my gift wish list
never seems to get distributed.
But then something happened. The planets aligned, the stars got
in order, and the heavens opened up. And the Illini went on an 11-2
run and actually took the lead, only to see a rare call result in
tying free throws, last-possession shots for both teams in
regulation and then into overtime.
By then, my gift wish list had finally made it to the Illini
bench. How else could you explain the way Illinois dominated the
extra session? And so it was that the Illini somehow pulled out an
83-80 opening-day win. Let's go to my three stars:
Star 1: Rayvonte Rice
Ray literally did everything ... a career-high 29 points, eight
rebounds, three steals, and he may have been spotted twisting
pretzels and squeezing cheese into those cute little cups in the
concession stand near section C-30! It was a performance for the
ages. There were many times throughout the contest when he just took
over. In fact, I ran the risk of getting tossed myself (for you
newer readers, you need to know that I will literally do anything in
my power to help the good guys win) during every timeout, as I
simply made the suggestion in the direction of coach Groce: "Here's
an idea, fellas. How 'bout giving the ball to Ray and everybody else
get out of the way." You think I'm joking, but I'm not!
Simply put, I didn't believe the hype. All last season the
reports from practice were that Ray was the best player out there. I
thought it was nice, but I also knew that with the departure of our
five seniors, they had to say something to motivate him. So, I knew
he would be good, but this good? I didn't see it coming. There were
times Tuesday when Ray was the best player on the floor, in the
building or maybe in the state! At times, he willed the team to
victory — and he made sure I got what I wanted. How could I not
make him my No. 1 star?
Star 2: Tracy Abrams
Tracy Abrams has been on the rise for the last few weeks. All he
did Tuesday was contribute 17 points, three assists, three steals
and four turnovers. In fact, the Illini as a team only had 10
turnovers but turned IU over 23 times, and that was a huge factor in
this game. The haters will point to the "Brandon Paul-like pass"
that he fired over Jon Ekey's head almost into Greg Taylor's lap at
a crucial moment. But time after time, he came up big for us.
[to top of second column]
I think he is picking his spots better, penetrating better and
finishing better. Maybe being pushed by the freshmen has been a good
thing. Maybe Groce's confidence in him has been a good thing.
Whatever it is, I'm all for it and just want to see more of it. I
don't think he is getting the praise he deserves right now. We are
not where we are currently without his improved play, period. So,
we're heaping on the kudos in hopes of seeing more.
Right now I think he is one of the most underrated, undervalued
players in the league. And without a big game from him on Tuesday,
we don't beat Indiana. So, I smile as I place him on this list.
Star 3: Joseph Bertrand
My son loves Joe Bertrand, so I have to give him consideration
every time out. First thing he said to me in the car was, "Dad, that
alley-oop dunk by Bertrand was sick!" I had to agree. But Bertrand
was more than a highlight reel or a SportsCenter top play nominee in
this game. He contributed 13 BIG points, seven rebounds and made
some big steals (a couple didn't make the stats sheet) and big plays
I know that he seems to go quiet at times, but when other teams
decide to double-team Rice, Joe's going to have to step up. He did
that in this contest, and he was a difference-maker. I sometimes
feel that Joe doesn't realize how good he can be. If and when he
does, I believe he could explode, and so could our good fortunes;
but I tip my cap to him on this one, as he was a big factor in the
I almost gave my No. 1 star to Illinois coach Groce. He always
brings the energy and the passion. Reminds me a lot of our own great
local coach, Neil Alexander. In all the years I have known him, I
have never once seen him show up for a game unprepared ... not once!
He always brings the fire, the energy, the juice and it is
infectious to everyone else. Coach Groce was on top of his game as
he usually is as well.
Nnanna Egwu had eight points, three blocks and two clutch free
throws when we needed them.
Kendrick Nunn had seven huge points and three steals off the
bench in this one. If he and Jaylon Tate can provide that much help
while spelling Rice and Abrams, our ceiling goes up.
Maverick Morgan had some nice minutes, and we'll take the four
points, too. If you could've seen him earlier this season, you might
have wondered how he even got here. However, he looks much more
comfortable now and seems to be growing and improving every time
Jon Ekey's dive, steal and rollover timeout might have been the
play of the game!
There are others I could mention, but we have to get this posted.
Any way you slice it, with the win Illinois is now 12-2, 1-0, and I
think two of these last three wins could come in handy on Selection
Sunday. But what I loved best about this particular game wasn't just
getting another win over Indiana ... I will always love that. But
what I particularly liked was that we were not going to back down!
We were going to fight on every possession. And we were ready.
I got everything I wanted for Christmas and didn't need anything
for New Year's or my birthday. But the Illini wrapped up the perfect
gift anyway and delivered it special delivery, and for that I am
[By JEFF MAYFIELD]
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