BY STEFAN MODRICH/@StefanJModrich
CHICAGO — Illinois head coach John Groce had some advice for his players before Saturday’s 75-73 win over BYU in the Legends Classic, particularly for senior guards Tracy Abrams and Jaylon Tate and sophomore guard D.J. Williams.
“Making sure you’re playing with emotion, but not being too emotional,” Groce said. “I tell them, it’s only a two-letter difference, but very important difference.”
The spectacle of playing a game in the United Center (with the World Series trophy also paying a visit) for the Mount Carmel and Simeon alums seemed like an ideal backdrop. But even to the most experienced of players, the setting would not be without its distractions.
That’s where Groce comes in.
“Yeah, obviously, they got a chance to come home and play,” Groce said. “In my experience in 22 years that can go one of two ways – they can play out of character or they can play within character. That’s such a delicate balance, that emotion.”
In total, Illinois boasts two Mount Carmel (Abrams and Alex Austin) and two Simeon graduates (Tate and Williams), as well as Libertyville native Drew Cayce and Northbrook native Cameron Liss.
“I thought they handled it pretty well,” Groce said. “Obviously is it more special for them the fact that it’s in their hometown? I’m sure there is an emotional element to that. But at the end of the day for us, we’ve talked a lot about climbing the ladder one step at a time, and today for our team it was the next step on that ladder.”
The Illini (9-3) led the Cougars (7-4) by as many as 16, but took a six-point advantage into the break and were outscored by BYU 36-32 in the second half.
Runs were few and far between in such a tight contest, but Illinois did have a 7-0 scoring burst that lasted about a minute of game time with under six to play in the first half.
Abrams had 15 points to go along with four assists and four rebounds, including 10 second-half points that helped widen the gap as BYU senior guard L.J. Rose caught fire in the waning moments of the game and the Cougars nearly knocked off Illinois with a halfcourt buzzer-beater that drew iron.
Tate dished out five assists and scored one bucket off the bench while Williams scored 2 points in 5 minutes of action.
As for the significance of the stage he was playing on, Abrams seemed indifferent when asked about playing in Chicago after the game.
“We’ve all been in this whole process together,” Abrams said. “In addition of myself, it’s been — we had Mike doing the run out, so it’s been a great process for us. We learned a lot. I’ll say we’ve just been unconditional with our approach, and we’ve got to keep it like that.”
The sixth-year senior, with two master’s degrees under his belt, also reflected to The Catch and Shoot upon his earliest memories of visiting 1901 W. Madison.
“It’s great for me to be back here,” Abrams said. “As a kid, you come to games and you dream about playing here. I’m blessed to be able to play here.”
To their credit, the Illini collectively seemed to enjoy their time in Chicago – the team ordered Lou Malnati’s — Groce told Abrams and senior center Maverick Morgan to keep it warm for him when his student-athletes left the press conference stage — and stayed in town overnight due to the coming inclement weather.
The attendance overall was poor, though Illinois could claim the second-strongest crowd presence next to Dayton. Plenty of orange was seen scattered throughout the lower levels of the arena as early as the second half of the first game of the doubleheader.
“It was great to be here,” Groce said. “Great opponent, great venue. Great to be in the city. Like I said, we feel blessed that we were able to win against a really good team, and we get a chance to learn from it and get better heading into Wednesday.”