Illinois ended its United Center slump.
It wasn’t without the typical Illini thrill, though.
Illinois gave up a double-digit lead against Auburn, but fought off the Tigers’ comeback attempt for an 81-79 victory Saturday.
“It was odd,” coach John Groce said. “That’s the grimiest 80-point game I’ve ever been a part of. We talked about it with less than 4 [minutes to play], ‘Hey, it’s not going to be one of those sexy ones. We have to come together.’ ”
The No. 12 Illini (13-1) came together to end a three-game losing streak – and five losses in their last six games – at the Bulls’ home, an annual venue for a game.
They regrouped with Tracy Abrams leading the way.
The point guard scored a career-high 27 points to go with eight rebounds, five assists, four steals and just one turnover in 35 minutes.
“I was pushing the ball more than I did in any other game this season,” Abrams said. “I just wanted to start a game off like that. I just took what they gave me.”
His fellow Illini had more compliments for him.
“If he didn’t make the plays he made, we wouldn’t have won that game,” guard Brandon Paul said.
Illinois let its 11-point lead slip to just 68-67 with 4 minutes, 28 seconds remaining. That’s when Groce said his players locked in.
“Our guys really turned the screws up,” he said. “You could see that look in their eyes.”
Poor free throw shooting (27-for-40) and some spotty defense (Auburn connected on 11 of 23 3-pointers) were overcome by Abrams’ stellar day.
The Illini desperately needed his performance, with Paul suffering through a rare off night.
The team’s leading scorer shot just 3-for-12, including 0-for-5 on 3-pointers, to tie a season-low 13 points. He committed six of Illinois’ 11 turnovers.
Auburn guard Frankie Sullivan scored 21 points, making 5 of 12 3-pointers, and forward Allen Payne recorded a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
There will be plenty for Groce to review before the Big Ten slate tips off Wednesday at Purdue.
They were outrebounded for a second-straight game.
This time, the Tigers grabbed 39 rebounds – including 14 offensive biards – to the Illini’s 31. Auburn (5-7) also outscored Illinois 24-7 on second-chance points and 34-26 in the paint.
“There are some things we have to do a lot better,” Groce said.
No. 12 Illinois 81, Auburn 79
Star of the game: Tracy Abrams, Illinois, 27 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, 1 turnover
Bertrand watch: 7 points on 3-for-3 FGs (1-for-1 3s), 3 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 turnover in 21 minutes
Up next: Illinois at Purdue, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday