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Cold-shooting Illinois ekes out victory over IPFW

The Illini (7-0) got 17 points timely late steal from Rayvonte Rice dodging bullet their home court against Mastodons. |

The Illini (7-0) got 17 points and a timely late steal from Rayvonte Rice in dodging a bullet on their home court against the Mastodons. | Heather Coit/AP

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Updated: January 1, 2014 6:17AM

CHAMPAIGN — Winning ugly is the better-looking cousin of whatever it is Illinois did here Friday night.

Despite themselves, the Illini walked off the floor with a victory over IPFW (6-3). The final score was 57-55, but those numbers don’t do justice to the uneven — and at times downright unsightly — performance turned in by John Groce’s squad.

So where to start?

The Illini (7-0) shot 39.2 percent from the field, misfired on all but four of their 21 three-point attempts and hit just 13 of 23 foul shots. And those were some of the highlights for a team whose starters combined for two assists and whose bench contributed almost nothing offensively — three points in 41 minutes among five players.

Strong overall on the boards thus far, the Illini were outrebounded 39-33 by the Mastodons of the Summit League. If not for IPFW’s disastrous free throw shooting — 1-for-8 in the first half and 2-for-13 for the game — it’s quite likely the Dons (does anybody even call them that?) would have pulled off the upset.

“Let’s be real honest, when everybody looked at this game on the schedule, there were probably 15 people who thought we had a chance,” said Tony Jasick, their coach. “Fourteen guys in the locker room, and me.”

As bad-looking losses for the Illini program go, this would have jumped off the ESPN ticker even more alarmingly than UIC 57, Illinois 54 did in December of 2010. You might have to go back three years further for a better comparison: Tennessee State 60, Illinois 58 at Assembly Hall.

Of course, that 2007-08 squad finished 16-19 — the only losing season for the program since the late-1990s. This team has seven new pieces who still are learning to play with one another. This season certainly has the potential to break bad, but there’s a lot of potential in this group.

“These guys are starting to learn that you’ve got to bring it every day, every play, every possession,” Groce said.

When IPFW took a 35-27 lead at the half, it was obvious to Groce that his team had left its focus behind in Las Vegas, where it gutted out a two-point victory at UNLV on Tuesday. He lit into his players and at least some of them responded.

Tracy Abrams led a ferocious defensive effort throughout the second half as the Illini pressured the Dons into 11 turnovers. Rayvonte Rice finished with a game-high 17 points and had the steal that helped ice the game in the closing seconds. Big man Nnanna Egwu had seven second-half rebounds after grabbing none in the first half.

“It’s not good enough. We’ve got a long way to go,” Groce said.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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