Illinois forward Jon Ekey (33) goes to the basket in front of Auburn players after he was fouled in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, in Atlanta. Illinois won 81-62. (AP Photo/David Tulis)
Updated: January 10, 2014 6:30AM
ATLANTA — Jon Ekey used the word ‘‘frustrated.’’ Rayvonte Rice chose ‘‘mad,’’ then had second thoughts and watered it down to ‘‘disappointed.’’ Tracy Abrams went with a wordless eye roll.
However they put it, the Illini
had to be in a foul mood after
giving away a game Tuesday at Georgia Tech. Five days later and only two miles from Georgia Tech’s home building, Illinois (8-1) took the floor at Philips Arena and
routed Auburn 81-62.
‘‘All in all, I thought our
response was terrific,’’ coach John Groce said.
The circumstances surrounding this ‘‘road’’ game were odd, to say the least. In the home of the Atlanta Hawks, whose fans are notoriously apathetic, Auburn — officially the home team — received no support whatsoever from the crowd. That’s because the crowd appeared not to include a single paying customer who ever has shouted ‘‘War Damn Eagle!’’
The Auburn campus sits barely an hour and a half from Atlanta. Downtown was crawling late
Saturday with tens of thousands of Tigers football fans who were in town for the Southeastern Conference championship game. They either didn’t know or didn’t care about the basketball game against Illinois.
At least the several hundred
Illini fans who were on hand got to see their team put on a first-half clinic. You think the second half at Georgia Tech was bad? Imagine how the Tigers (4-3) felt after an opening 20 minutes in which Illinois shot 60 percent from the field, played lockdown defense and rang up a 41-17 lead.
‘‘We got off to a great start, maybe as good a start as we’ve had at both ends,’’ Groce said. ‘‘We probably played our best 20 minutes of the year in the first half.’’
Groce credited Abrams, whose effectiveness has been up-and-down all season, with sparking some of the best ball movement the Illini have shown. That enabled a team for which perimeter shooting isn’t exactly a big strength to knock down 7 of 13 three-point
attempts in the first half.
At the other end, Rice, Joe Bertrand and Kendrick Nunn took turns shutting down Auburn guard Chris Denson, the SEC’s leading scorer.
Illinois’ defensive effort waned during a couple of second-half stretches, but the offense continued to sing. Rice surged to a team-high 22 points despite going scoreless for the first 15:34. Abrams had his best overall game, with 17 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
A three-pointer by Ekey made it 52-22 with 17:41 to go, giving onlookers little to do from there but watch Auburn alum Charles Barkley sign autographs from his first-row seat.
‘‘We kind of used [the Georgia Tech game] to come together,’’ Ekey said. ‘‘It was more intense but also kind of looser out there.’’
When they play this well, the Illini can explain it however they want.