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No. 12 Illinois beats Auburn behind Tracy Abrams’ 27

Coach John Groce said guard Tracy Abrams (above) has been his best lately practice. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

Coach John Groce said guard Tracy Abrams (above) has been at his best lately in practice. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

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Updated: December 29, 2012 11:55PM

Tracy Abrams’ personal narrative is the portrait of a point guard as a young man. With each passing day, he is learning the subtleties and intricacies of the college game.

Illinois is the beneficiary.

Playing in his hometown, the former Mount Carmel star played a spectacular all-around game, scoring 27 points and adding eight rebounds, five assists and four steals as No. 12 Illinois escaped with an 81-79 victory over Auburn on Saturday at the United Center.

“I was just pushing the ball,” the sophomore point guard said, “and I took what they gave me.”

Illinois led by 11 points in the second half. It survived two Auburn three-pointers in the closing seconds to move to 13-1, its best start in four years. The Illini open Big Ten play Wednesday at Purdue.

Abrams downplayed his personal achievements and preferred to focus on the importance of the victory for the program’s seniors, who never had won in three previous games at the United Center.

“That’s all good,” Abrams said of his scoring outburst, “but I’m just glad our seniors got a win here.”

Abrams’ impact was felt in many ways.

“The 27 is great,” Illinois coach John Groce said, “but I’m into the five assists and the one turnover in 35 minutes playing against a team that ranks in the top 50 nationally at creating turnovers.”

Abrams’ attacking style resulted in repeatedly getting to the rim. In the first half, he scored in multiple ways, drilling two three-pointers and scoring off the dribble. He averaged a point a minute, scoring 16 to help stake the Illini to a 47-42 lead at the break.

His scoring proved necessary to offset Auburn’s dominance on the offensive glass. The Tigers (5-7) had eight offensive rebounds in the first half, producing a 10-1 edge in second-chance points. It nullified the Illini’s 14-4 differential on points off turnovers.

“I thought we struggled defensively throughout,” Groce said. “I didn’t think our defense had a lot of bite until about eight minutes to go. For the bulk of the first half, they played harder than we did.”

Auburn star Frankie Sullivan (team-best 21 points) drilled a three-pointer from the left wing with 4:28 left in the game, capping a 19-9 Tigers burst that cut the 11-point deficit to one at 68-67.

On Auburn’s next possession, Sullivan missed a layup in traffic, and Abrams snared the rebound. He was fouled and made both free throws to give the Illini some breathing room.

Illinois’ 40 free-throw attempts marked a season high. After missing six of their first eight in the second half, Illinois made nine of 10 during a closing three-minute stretch.

Senior guard Brandon Paul shot just 3-for-12 and missed all five of his three-point attempts. But he excelled at getting to the basket and drawing fouls. He finished with 13 points. Senior forward Tyler Griffey and senior guard D.J. Richardson had eight points apiece.

Former Thornton star Brian Greene Jr. scored three points and added a steal in 14 minutes off the bench for the Tigers.

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