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Illinois rallies in second half to top UIC at the United Center

Illinois' Joseph Bertr(2) goes up for shot against Illinois-Chicago's Kelsey Barlow (45) during second half an NCAA basketball game Chicago

Illinois' Joseph Bertrand (2) goes up for a shot against Illinois-Chicago's Kelsey Barlow (45) during the second half of an NCAA basketball game in Chicago, Saturday, Dec., 28, 2013. Illinois won 74-60. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

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Updated: December 28, 2013 8:40PM

Again, really?

Three years after Illinois’ embarrassing upset loss to UIC here in Chicago, the Illini’s rear ends were right back in the fire. At halftime Saturday, they trailed the Flames by 10 and were being dominated in nearly every facet of the game.

In the visitors’ locker room at the United Center, UIC coach Howard Moore warned his players that the second half would be a much different experience.

“A storm is coming,” he told them.

It came, and it quickly blew away every bit of the Flames’ sizzle. The Illini outscored UIC 40-16 over the final 20 minutes of a 74-60 victory.

As intensely and effectively as Illinois (11-2) played while seizing control of its final nonconference game, visions of the NCAA Tournament surely began to appear before many in the almost entirely orange-clad crowd.

On the other hand, are the Illini even close to ready for Big Ten games to begin? How, exactly, does something like a 44-34 halftime deficit — against a completely outmanned opponent — happen? The Flames (5-9) shot 62.1 percent in the first half. Their best player, Kelsey Barlow, a former starter at Purdue, had 16 points barely 11 minutes into the game.

“I thought we came to play,” said Illini coach John Groce of the early going, “but we didn’t come to fight.”

There’s no reason yet to assume we’ve seen the last of the team that took half a game to remember why it was in Chicago in the first place.

But there’s also no doubting this team’s potential. Not anymore.

Defensively, the Illini have a lot of answers. Against Barlow, the answer was Rayvonte Rice. The junior guard took over the task of defending Barlow at the start of the second half, and held him to a measly three points.

“If you look at the game, it looks like Rice kind of shut me down,” Barlow said. “I just didn’t play well in the second half.”

You know why? Because Rice completely shut him down.

Rice also owned this game at the offensive end, scoring 28 points — one off the career high he set at Drake, where he played two seasons. Rice led the charge by lowering his shoulders and driving to the rim. Tracy Abrams (16 points) and Joseph Bertrand (14) joined in the fun, the trio combining for 34 points after halftime.

It was the same bold, deliberate approach — drive after drive after drive — the Illini used to beat Missouri in last weekend’s 65-64 classic.

“I thought we were just tougher,” Groce said.

They might want to keep it up, because Indiana will be knocking on the State Farm Center door on Tuesday whether or not the Illini are ready to rumble. Everything gets harder from here.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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