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Illinois falls 67-64 to Georgia Tech in Big Ten/ACC battle

GeorgiTech forward Robert Carter Jr. (4) Illinois guard Joseph Bertr(2) battle for rebound first half an NCAA college basketball game

Georgia Tech forward Robert Carter, Jr. (4) and Illinois guard Joseph Bertrand (2) battle for a rebound in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

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Updated: December 4, 2013 11:53AM

ATLANTA — A bunch of losses, including some bad ones, are bound to happen to a team with so many first-year players, such little outside shooting, no true veteran point guard and a thin front line.

But this, in the Big Ten/ACC challenge, with conference reputations on the line?

This was unacceptable.

Illinois took a 12-point lead over Georgia Tech on a dunk by Nnanna Egwu with 9:13 left to play Tuesday night. From there, it was 19-4 in favor of the bad guys.

It would be one thing if the opponent had been one of the ACC’s banner programs — Duke, maybe North Carolina — but these were the Yellow Jackets, who entered this one 5-3 on the season and exited it having to wonder not how they’d won 67-64, but rather how they’d avoided being run out of their own gym.

‘‘We got lucky,’’ Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said.

He was referring to a late-game possession on which the Illini whiffed on three shots, but he could have been describing the entire final 9:15. John Groce’s team made all of one field goal during that fateful, frustrating period, a turnaround 15-footer by Egwu off a post-up. The 6-11 junior was fouled on the play and hit the free throw for a 63-60 lead with 1:33 to go.

‘‘I thought our execution was absolutely pathetic,’’ Groce said. ‘‘It was awful.’’

Unlike his coaching counterpart, Groce was referring to the final 9:15 — not to mention a lengthy chunk to end the first half, when the Illini went from 26-17 up to 36-33 down at the intermission.

‘‘The execution part has got to be better. Ultimately, that’s on me,’’ Groce said. ‘‘We don’t have any excuses. We never have any excuses.’’

The loss dropped Illinois to 7-8 all-time in the Challenge and ended its four-game winning streak, which was the best for any team from either conference heading into this event.

A year ago in Champaign, the Illini got a late 10-0 run from Joe Bertrand that erased a deficit and propelled them to victory over Georgia Tech. This time, Rayvonte Rice led a second-half charge, scoring 10 straight Illini points and 15 in all over the opening 9:21 of the second half.

At that point, Rice had his game-high 24. Unfortunately, that’s where he — and his team — hit a wall that was mostly of their own building.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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