CHAMPAIGN — John Groce reached into his closet, picked orange, and came to the Assembly Hall Saturday dressed for a party.
Then Nebraska nearly played the role of party pooper.
On a Saturday afternoon that celebrated the final home game for five University of Illinois seniors and the 50th anniversary of the Assembly Hall, Illinois had to fight to the finish to turn back Nebraska 72-65.
Tracy Abrams scored 16 points, including six free throws without a miss in the final 3 minutes, 20 seconds of the game and Illinois’ bench outscored Nebraska’s bench 38-0 as the Illini improved to 21-9 overall and 8-8 in the Big Ten.
“Our guys were really poised and made some big plays late,” said Groce, who for the second time this season donned a bright orange blazer. “You have to be resilient. You have to get up and fight, and this group has done that all year.”
With 21 victories and its eighth conference win, Illinois is thought to be on fairly solid footing two weeks from Selection Sunday. But Groce won’t even entertain a question about Illinois’ NCAA Tournament chances.
Asked if 8-8 in the Big Ten makes him feel secure, he said, “I just know it’s better than being 7-9. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but that’s what it is.”
While there were important plays from each of the four senior regulars, three sophomores stood out.
In addition to Abrams, Nnanna Egwu had 10 points and five rebounds, but it was Myke Henry who played what Groce called, “his best game of the season when you take into consideration defense,
scoring and rebounding.” Henry scored a season-high 12 points and grabbed a career-best nine rebounds.
Henry’s play was critical because starting power forward Sam McLaurin was limited to just eight minutes of playing time because of an ankle injury. Groce said he had yet to receive an update on the severity of the injury.
“Without Myke, we probably wouldn’t have had this outcome,” said senior Brandon Paul, who had 14 points, five assists and just one turnover.
Illinois struggled all game to defend Nebraska guards Ray Gallegos (23 points) and Dylan Talley (20 points). Gallegos hit six 3-pointers, and Talley also tied for the team lead with five rebounds.
“We changed coverage in our man-to-man three or four times trying to stymie them,” Groce said. We went zone for a couple of possessions.
“It’s interesting and it’s tricky. They were on such a roll with deep shooting range. You get nervous because how much zone are you going to play? Those guys were getting it done at a high level. Those two were a load to stop.”
The game was tied 55-55 with less than six minutes to play and a sellout crowd of 16,618 was a nervous group. Each time Illinois would inch ahead, Nebraska had an answer.
Finally, Illinois took the lead for good when D.J. Richardson came off a screen on an in-bounds play and nailed a 3-pointer from the corner, putting Illinois ahead 60-57 with 4:58 to play.
“Richardson’s 3 from the corner on a play we knew was coming was really big,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said.
Illinois made it 62-57 when Abrams drove hard to the basket and scored with 4:04 to play.
After each team scored again, Nebraska (13-16, 4-12) cut the lead to 64-62 on Gallegos’ 3-pointer with 2:59 to play, and Illinois answered when Paul scooped in a driving basket through traffic to give Illinois a 66-62 lead.
Finally, Illinois’ defense tightened as the teams traded missed shots and the lead was still 66-62 with under a minute to go.
Abrams was fouled and knocked down both free throws to extend the lead to 68-62 with 46.8 seconds to play and two more free throws by Abrams pushed it to 70-62 with 21 seconds to go. Finally, Illinois had dodged the upset.
“I thought they made plays,” Miles said. “Paul made some shots at the end of the shot clock that really hurt us.”
In the second half, Illinois shot 50 percent and outrebounded Nebraska 20-12.
After shooting 50 percent in the first half, Nebraska shot 41.9 percent in the second half and was outrebounded for the game, 35-26.
Paul said the thing he’ll remember most about his final home game is that his team scratched out another win.
“At the end I was just thinking that it went by fast,” he said of his home career. “I was more happy than emotional, and I appreciate the way our team played at the end.”
Paul said he couldn’t say which senior was the most emotional.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I was under my shirt, crying.”