By Greg Wallace, Special to the Tribune
11:17 PM CDT, March 23, 2014
CLEMSON, S.C. — His long 3-pointer right of the basket, hitting nothing but air and hardwood, Tracy Abrams fell to the floor in despair. The Illinois junior guard’s desperation shot went wide, a fitting coda for a difficult end to the Illini’s season.
Illinois made just 3 of 21 3-pointers, and Clemson held on for a 50-49 victory before a raucous Littlejohn Coliseum crowd of 10,000 in the NIT second round Sunday afternoon.
Illinois’ season ended at 20-15, and Clemson improved to 22-12. The Tigers will face Belmont here Tuesday night in the NIT quarterfinals.
“We wanted to try to get to New York City (for the NIT semifinals),” Illinois coach John Groce said. “It didn’t happen, but it wasn’t because of effort. It wasn’t because of fight.”
Down 28-19 following a cold-shooting first half, Illinois rallied behind junior guard Rayvonte Rice, who scored 13 of his game-high 15 points in the second half.
The Illini tied the game at 35 with 10 minutes, 32 seconds remaining. Senior forward Jon Ekey’s third 3-pointer of the game gave Illinois its first lead, 49-48, with 2:05 left. But those were its final points of the game.
With 9.3 seconds left, Clemson junior guard Rod Hall drove the right side of the lane and made a tough layup, giving the Tigers a 50-49 edge.
“They gave me a big outlet and I got it in my right hand and made a good layup,” Hall said.
Illinois had no timeouts left but Clemson called one, allowing a setup for a final shot. Rice and Ekey were covered, so Rice drove right and pitched to Abrams at the top of the key. He air-balled the shot with 1.7 seconds left.
Groce said Abrams’ shot “was not” what he wanted, but added “he’s made a lot of big plays for us.”
Groce lauded his team’s mettle in rebounding from an eight-game losing streak that stretched from January into February, saying “five, six weeks ago, I don’t think we’d be sitting here.”
It still wasn’t enough to extend the careers of Ekey and fellow senior guard Joseph Bertrand.
“Walking off the court, it hurt losing,” Ekey said. “but when we got to the tunnel afterward it hit me that I wouldn’t be on a college court again, playing.”
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