Abrams, Illini fall short against Michigan in Big Ten Tournament

By Johnathan Hettinger

INDIANAPOLIS — It was the shot Tracy Abrams wanted.

With 3.0 seconds left in the game and Illinois trailing 64-63, senior Jon Ekey passed it to the point guard at the top of the key. Abrams broke free of Caris LaVert, Michigan’s 6-foot-6 wingman, who was guarding him. He drove to the basket, and there wasn’t a Wolverine around to stop him. With just around a second remaining, Abrams let a floater fly.

But the floater fell short, and with it, Illinois’ comeback effort. The fans in Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis let out a collective sigh – the fans in orange sighing in disappointment, the fans in maize sighing in relief.

Abrams stood under the basket, where he landed after a putback attempt after the buzzer. Abrams hands were on his knees, his eyes staring straight ahead, he was shocked — shocked Illinois lost, shocked the shot fell short.

The fans stood in the stadium, feeling disbelief — disbelief Illinois was able to mount a comeback, disbelief Abrams couldn’t finish it off.

But Illinois wouldn’t have been in that position without Abrams.

It was Abrams who got Illinois into the quarterfinals, with 25 points and seven rebounds against Indiana on Thursday. It was Abrams who, after going scoreless in the first half, scored seven straight points, cutting the Michigan lead from 55-49 with 10:25 remaining to 55-54 with 7:59 remaining. Abrams facilitated the offense, scoring 11 points to key Illinois’ comeback — trailing by five at the half and 13 with 16:13 remaining in the game.

Illinois head coach John Groce didn’t blame Abrams.

“We got the ball right where we wanted. Tracy’s made big plays for us all year,” Groce said. “His ability to lead and be vocal is a big key to our team. I just told him it’s not about that last play. There were a lot of other plays in the game.”

There were other changes that could’ve been made to change the outcome. Rayvonte Rice’s shot with 1:12 remaining and a 63-61 Illini lead could’ve swished through rather than rimming out. Illinois could’ve called a timeout instead of forcing Abrams to shoot an off-balance 3-pointer as the shot clock went off with 22 seconds remaining. With 19 seconds remaining, Illinois could have stayed in a zone, like they had played all day, instead of switching to a man-to-man defense to stop Nik Stauskus from passing it inside to an open Jordan Morgan. Stauskus could have shot the ball instead of passing.

But none of those things happened. And Illinois lost 64-63, falling out of the Big Ten Tournament and likely being relegated to the NIT.

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected]