Tracy Abrams not dwelling on missed shot

By Johnathan Hettinger

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

Tracy Abrams struggled to climb the stairs to the microphone in front of the media at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Friday afternoon after a 64-63 loss to Michigan. With every step he took, he grimaced, slowly lifting each leg, one after the other.

Minutes before, Abrams had missed an eight-foot floater with the chance to win the game.  

He finally made it to the top and hobbled to a chair in the middle the table. He sat and waited for the barrage of questions that was sure to come. 

“That last shot was right there, what happened?”

“You kind of stood there for a while, what was going through your mind?”

No one has ever doubted Abrams’ toughness. John Groce has called him a bulldog since becoming head coach at Illinois. But Abrams has never been an elite Big Ten talent. He has yet to develop a consistent outside shot (he’s shot 3-pointers at a 28.1 percent clip this season). His decision-making was the target of criticism in the first half against Indiana, and it was again with 22 seconds remaining against Michigan when he heaved an air-ball 3-pointer as the shot clock expired instead of calling a timeout to run a set play. 

But Groce left the ball in Abrams’ hands for a reason. Before the reporters were able to ask any questions, Groce was already defending his point guard.

“Tracy has made big plays for us all year,” Groce said. He mentioned the Braggin’ Rights win over Mizzou, when Abrams led the Illini with 22 points and sank two free throws with 4.6 seconds remaining to give Illinois a 65-64 win. He mentioned Thursday’s Big Ten Tournament win over Indiana, when Abrams played arguably the best game of his career, finishing with 25 points, seven rebounds and only one turnover.

“His ability to lead and be vocal is a big key to our team,” Groce said. “I just told him it’s not about that last play.”

When Illinois fell behind Michigan, Abrams didn’t give up. He scored all 11 of his points in the second half, including seven straight to cut Michigan’s lead from eight to one. He left it all on the floor; he could hardly climb the stairs.

Abrams said he knew the Illini would win. Because he wasn’t going to let them lose.

He was wrong. He did everything he could, but it wasn’t enough. Illinois did all it could, too — outshooting, outrebounding and outplaying top-seeded Michigan.

Abrams answered questions about the missed shot — “It’s obviously an uncontested shot that I probably could make” — and about what was going through his mind — “I was shocked that we lost, shocked the shot didn’t go in.”

And he left the media with one final message: “It is what it is.”

He was dismissed to go back to the locker room, where he knew he would face a new barrage from more reporters. He’d have to answer the same questions again, recount what happened again.

He would have to relive a shot that he should’ve made, that should’ve changed the season for Illinois.

But, he was the one who put Illinois in the quarterfinal, he was the one who put Illinois in a position to win after falling behind by 13. After the barrage of questions stopped, he could finally sit down. As he sat there, a photographer wouldn’t let him get his peace. He could hear the rapid “click-click-click” of the lens each time a photo was taken, trying to grasp the emotions of Illinois’ bulldog.

Finally, the reporters were kicked out. There were no more questions, no more photos.

He would turn his mind toward the next game, just as he had during Illinois’ eight-game losing streak earlier in the season. There was no point in dwelling on the shot.

“That’s over,” Abrams said. “You can’t do nothing about that game.”

Abrams’ teammates still respect him. His coach will still give him the ball with the game on the line. Fans will still wear orange No. 13 jerseys to games.

And he will continue to give his all.

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.