CHAMPAIGN – When the score is tight or a call does not go his way, Illinois coach John Groce turns toward the bench and gives the sign with a slow movement of his hand – palm down as if smoothing out a sheet.
The meaning: Stay level. Don’t panic.
“They know my signal,” he said after a 72-65 victory over Nebraska on Saturday. “Stay right there. We don’t want energy vampires around our organization or team. I thought we did a good job of keeping our heads up and we found our way.”
The Illini (21-9, 8-8 Big Ten) overcame a hot Cornhuskers offense that shot 45.5 percent, with guards Ray Gallegos and Dylan Talley combining for 43 points.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Groce said. “At the end of the game, they showed a ton of poise.”
Illinois separated itself from Nebraska (13-16, 4-12) on a 7-0 run with less than 5 minutes left. The Illini their last six free throws and held the Cornhuskers to one field goal in the final 3 minutes.
Illinois led 66-62 when forward Myke Henry chased down a crucial offensive rebound with only 59 seconds remaining.
Henry finished with a season-high 12 points and career-high nine rebounds.
Illini senior guard Brandon Paul, who finished with 14 points, five assists and one turnover, crouched at midcourt and buried his head in his jersey at the game’s conclusion.
Senior guard D.J. Richardson added 13 points with two steals.