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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: January 31, 2013 6:51AM

Winning at the United Center is always a big deal for Illinois, even if an 81-79 victory Saturday over ­Auburn was uncomfortably close.

The Illini hadn’t won here since 2008. They fell out of touch with their fan base to the north during the three-game skid, so any victory on Madison Street is a step forward for first-year coach John Groce.

But after posting his semester grade for the No. 12 Illini, Groce already was looking toward a ­demanding Big Ten season, where this squad collapsed last winter.

“I’m a tough grader,’’ Groce said. “I’d probably give us a B, B-plus. Coaches always want more.

“If you’re not tough and together in what’s getting ready to take place in the next 18 games, it doesn’t matter if you’re running five-man motion or ball-screen motion. We’ve got a chance to keep moving forward and get better.’’

Illinois (13-1) opens Big Ten play Wednesday at Purdue.

The toughness/togetherness line has been Groce’s theme since practice started in October. Those are among the Illini’s biggest concerns, along with point guard play. But Illinois has a different feel this season, thanks in part to sophomore Tracy Abrams, who carried the team against the Tigers with career highs of 27 points and eight rebounds. He also had five assists, four steals and one turnover.

“We have a lot more weapons and a lot more confidence,’’ said guard Brandon Paul, who scored 13 points on 3-for-12 shooting with three assists and six turnovers. “This is one game, just like the [loss to Missouri] was one game. We have to move on.’’

Groce suggested Abrams, the former Mount Carmel star, might have turned the corner since returning from Christmas break by grasping those intangible traits that turn a guard into a point guard.

“It’s more of finding that balance of attacking for yourself and attacking to see what they give you to make other guys better,’’ Groce said “The last two to three days in practice and including today, he’s done that at the highest level he’s done it all season. It’s playing with speed, having pace and changing gears.’’

Abrams scored 16 points in the game’s first 16 minutes.

“I was pushing the ball more than I did in any other game of the season,’’ Abrams said. “We’ve been pushing the ball lately in practice. I wanted to start the game like that.’’

Worries over defense and rebounding returned. Auburn shot 53 percent and outrebounded Illinois 20-12 in the first half before the Illini improved in both areas after halftime.

Illinois might have awakened its Chicago-area fan base, if the 7,000 tickets sold in the last week and the crowd of 18,136 were any indication.

The crowd didn’t get excited until the closing minutes, when the Illini made five consecutive free throws to turn a one-point edge into a 73-67 lead. They hit 13 of 18 free-throw attempts in the final four minutes to hold off the Tigers (5-7).

But Paul and the other seniors left the city with their first victory at the program’s home away from home. Now comes the Big Ten opener against the Boilermakers, who have a seven-game winning streak against the Illini.

“We didn’t flinch,’’ Groce said. “We stayed with it. Our guys really came together, especially in those last four minutes, to find a way to win the game.’’

In a league with five other Top 25 teams, there’s no time to flinch.

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