Illinois rebounds from loss at Georgia Tech with rout of Auburn

By Michael Cunningham

ATLANTA — The Illinois men’s basketball team was back in Atlanta a few days after its collapse at Georgia Tech and the Illini left town with little doubt they are back on track.

Illinois dominated Auburn for an 81-62 victory Sunday at Philips Arena to bounce back from its first loss of the season Tuesday at Tech. The Illini led Tech by 12 points with less than seven minutes to play before fading to a 67-64 defeat.

Illinois (8-1) showed no ill effects from that disappointing defeat while dispatching Auburn (4-3). Illini coach John Groce said he was “intrigued” to see how his team responded to the Tech loss.

“Mentally they seemed really good, but now let’s see if we are going to be ready to go physically,” Groce said. “Are we going to come out and put our money where our mouth is? And we did. I thought guys played with pride. They played hard.” The Tigers opened the season with victories in four of five games, but tougher opponents have shown why SEC media picked Auburn to finish last in the league.

The Tigers lost 99-70 at No. 16 Iowa State on Tuesday and also were no match for the Illini, who beat Auburn 81-79 in Chicago last December. Auburn made just 6 of 23 field-goal attempts while falling behind 41-17 at halftime and the Tigers were down by as many as 32 points before Illinois went deep into its bench.

“We couldn’t make layups, we couldn’t make jump shots, we couldn’t make anything,” Auburn coach Tony Barbee said. “Give them credit; they made shots. But when you don’t put any pressure on the opposing team by being anemic as we were on offense in the first half, then there is no pressure on them. We put them in their comfort zone.” Illinois was paced by junior guards Rayvonte Rice (22 points) and Tracy Abrams (17 points, seven rebounds, five assists) while forward Jon Ekey made 4 of 6 3-point attempts. K.T. Harrell led Auburn with 23 points.

Illinois made five of 10 three-pointers while building a 26-13 lead, with Abrams and Ekey each making two of three attempts during that span. The Illini closed the half with an 18-4 run that Abrams capped with a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

“We just came out and threw the first punch,” Rice said. “We were definitely mad about the loss at Georgia Tech, but we came out and got the win.” Auburn had averaged 78.2 points in its first six games but struggled to score against the Illini. Guard Chris Denson, who entered the game leading the SEC with 21.8 points per game, scored just four points.

Denson couldn’t find much room to drive to the basket because of Illinois’ sharp help defense.

“He’s really talented and has a great knack for drawing fouls,” Groce said. “So we wanted to try to do the best we could defending him without fouling and I thought our guys did that.”

Not many Auburn fans showed up to cheer the basketball team a day after the Tigers won the SEC football championship at the Georgia Dome. The basketball Tigers barely topped the 59 points scored by the football team.

The majority of the sparse crowd was pulling for the Illini, who also had a sizeable group of fans at the Tech game. Among the Auburn supporters was Charles Barkley, the SEC player of the year for the Tigers in 1984 and a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.