Illini hand Missouri first loss, earn Braggin’ Rights
STEVE GREENBERG Staff Reporter December 21, 2013 7:10PM
Illinois guard Jaylon Tate (left) celebrates with teammate Tracy Abrams, who led the Illini with 22 points. | Jeff Roberson/AP
Updated: January 23, 2014 6:50AM
ST. LOUIS — All offseason, Illinois coach John Groce urged Tracy Abrams to speak up.
Someone had to lead this team on a player level. Abrams, a junior point guard who starred at Mount Carmel, certainly had the emotion and toughness for the task. But did he have the voice? As this season began, Groce still wondered if he could count on Abrams to say what needed to be said when it needed to be said.
There’s no wondering anymore.
In multiple timeouts during Illinois’ thrilling 65-64 victory over No. 23 Missouri, Abrams gave Groce a tap as he addressed his players. Abrams had a few things to say, too, and so he did. Loudly.
Abrams carried the Illini (10-2) to their biggest win of the season Saturday, scoring 22 points — his highest output in 34 games — and 12 of the team’s last 18, including the winning free throws with four seconds to go.
To get every one of those points, he hurtled himself into the lane and toward the rim with the courage of a lion. But that’s not what impressed Groce most.
“What stood out to me,” Groce said, “was his disposition in huddles. He was so locked in. He was very vocal.”
Abrams nearly didn’t get a chance to drive to the rim on the Illini’s last possession. After Jabari Brown’s three-pointer gave Missouri (10-1) a 64-63 lead with 15 seconds left, Groce put the ball in shooting guard Rayvonte Rice’s hands, isolating the team’s leading scorer at the top of the circle.
But a drive by Rice broke down. After nearly losing the ball out of bounds, Rice found Nnanna Egwu, who swung it to Abrams. It was the only way this game should’ve ended.
“Tracy was a warrior tonight,” Rice said.
After Mizzou’s Tony Criswell missed a desperation heave at the buzzer, Abrams and Groce found each other and shared an embrace. Both were on the verge of tears.
It was their first Braggin’ Rights victory in this extraordinary annual rivalry — the Tigers had won the previous four meetings — but Abrams wasn’t moved by personal glory.
He was thinking about some old friends — Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey — who never got to experience playing in a winning effort against Mizzou. He was feeling their presence, wishing they’d been a part of it all.
“They were great teammates,” Abrams said.
They were the ones who spoke up in Illini huddles a year ago.
Abrams’ time at Illinois hasn’t always been easy. His effectiveness at the offensive end has come and gone. There was a point early this season when some fans were calling for Groce to give freshman Jaylon Tate more minutes at the point and reduce Abrams’ role.
But now we know. Abrams isn’t having it.
“He’s a tough dude,” Groce said. “Always been a tough dude.”
With a voice, strong and true, to go with it.