Illinois beats Nebraska for sixth win in seven games
BY HERB GOULD email@example.com March 2, 2013 6:30PM
Illinois' Tracy Abrams (13) goes up for a shot against Nebraska's Ray Gallegos (15) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Champaign, Ill., on Saturday, March 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Heather Coit)
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Updated: April 4, 2013 6:56AM
CHAMPAIGN — When they finish mopping their brows, the worriers in Illini Nation will see Illinois’ 72-65 nail-biter Saturday against Nebraska as a sign their team won’t cope well with March Madness.
Don’t be so sure. In surviving the Cornhuskers’ dynamic duo of Ray Gallegos and Dylan Talley, the Illini (21-9, 8-8 Big Ten) mustered a lot of resolve with an emotional senior-day comeback. Even teams that go deep in the NCAA tournament dodge their share of bullets.
‘‘Our guys showed a lot of poise and made some big plays late in the game,’’ Illinois coach John Groce said. ‘‘Sometimes you have to do that, especially at this time of the year. Style points are out in late February and March.’’
It was the sixth victory in the last seven games for the Illini, who now seem to be playing for a better seed in the NCAA bracket rather than a mere invitation.
‘‘I just know [8-8] is better than being 7-9,’’ Groce said. ‘‘Our focus is [on a trip Tuesday to] Iowa. You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourselves.’’
Sparked by Gallegos and Talley, Nebraska (13-16, 4-12) led 49-45 with 11 minutes left and 57-55 with six minutes to go. Gallegos (23 points) and Talley (20) were a combined 15-for-34, including 8-for-16 from three-point range.
But Illinois, which had five players in double figures, kept punching back. Tracy Abrams (16 points), Brandon Paul (14), D.J. Richardson (13), Myke Henry (12, nine rebounds) and Nnanna Egwu (10) all had their moments. Even Tyler Griffey’s lone basket, a three-pointer when the Illini trailed 49-45, was important.
Abrams’ physical drive to the hoop, which put Illinois ahead 66-62, was critical. So was an offensive rebound by Henry, which set up two free throws by Abrams that gave the Illini a 68-62 lead with 46 seconds left.
‘‘They’ve kind of reinvented themselves,’’ Cornhuskers coach Tim Miles said. ‘‘They were rolling, then they had a tough stretch. [Groce] has done a fabulous job of getting them back and finding ways to win games. This was another one.’’
There were circumstances. Sam McLaurin, a solid defender and energy guy, was limited to eight minutes by an early sprained ankle.
‘‘How bad is that? I don’t know,’’ Groce said.
In addition, Gallegos and Talley continued to make tough shots as the game went on.
‘‘Those two were a load,’’ Groce said.
Finally, the emotions of senior day, not to mention the 50th anniversary of Assembly Hall, can be distractions as well as pluses.
At the end of his last game in Champaign, Paul stood on the court and ‘‘was under my shirt crying. We found a way to tough it out. It means the world to me. . . . It’s obviously good to go out with a win.’’