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Illini’s rally falls short this time

Clemson's Adonis Filer left defends against Illinois' Joseph Bertrduring first half their NCAA college basketball National Invitational Tournament game Littlejohn

Clemson's Adonis Filer, left, defends against Illinois' Joseph Bertrand 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 Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail, Mark Crammer) GREENVILLE NEWS OUT; SENECA NEWS OUT ORG XMIT: SCAND114

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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 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.

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.’’

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