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Illinois falls to Clemson in second round of NIT

Illinois' Rayvonte Rice (24) tries work ball around Clemson's Sidy Djitte during first half their NCAA college basketball National Invitational

Illinois' Rayvonte Rice (24) tries to work the ball around Clemson's Sidy Djitte during the first half of their NCAA college basketball National Invitational Tournament game at Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson, S.C., Sunday, March 23, 2014 | AP

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Updated: March 23, 2014 9:35PM

Despite a solid second-half comeback, Illinois lost its second-round game Sunday in the National Invitation Tournament 50-49 to host Clemson.

The Illini (20-15) had their season ended two victories short of a trip to the NIT Final Four in New York. Clemson (22-12) will play Belmont in the quarterfinals Tuesday.

The Illini (20-15) had trailed by 17 points at Boston University before pulling out a 66-62 victory in its NIT opener Wednesday. They were forced to play both games on the road because of a major renovation at the former Assembly Hall.

A clutch three-pointer by Jon Ekey gave Illinois, which had been down 28-19 at halftime, its first lead at 49-48 with 2:05 left. But after Rod Hall gave the Tigers a 50-49 lead on a drive with 9.3 seconds left, Tracy Abrams forced a three-point airball that went out of bounds.

‘‘Tracy shot it with about four seconds to go,’’ Illini coach John Groce said. ‘‘I wish he wouldn’t have done that. I wish he would have driven it. Hindsight’s always 20-20. But Tracy’s made big plays for us all year.’’

On Illinois’ previous possession, Rayvonte Rice, who led the Illini with 15 points, missed a short pull-up jumper. Groce would have preferred that he drive to the basket, too.

Illinois wound up shooting 37.5 percent, including a meager 3-for-21 from three-point range. Beyond Ekey (3-for-7), the Illini were 0-for-14 beyond the arc.

‘‘We took 21 threes,’’ Groce said. ‘‘Nine of the 18 [misses] were wide-open, nobody in the ZIP code. We have to knock in three or four of the nine. At the end of the day, we have to make some shots. We didn’t make enough of them on those last couple of possessions. That’s what makes this hard to swallow.’’

Ekey and Joseph Bertand are the only Illinois players who won’t return from a team that won six of its last nine games, including victories at Michigan State and Iowa, after a 1-10 skid. Three transfers and two recruits will offset those losses and add depth.

‘‘We’re going to have some guys battling it out,’’ Groce said. ‘‘That should allow us to play faster and be more aggressive defensively. Two years in a row, we’ve played our best in February and March. We still have long way to go, but I like the progress we’ve made in a very short period of time.’’


Twitter: @herbgould

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