WMBD/WYZZ-TV STAFF - CHICAGO (AP) - Brandon Paul looks at the rest of the Illinois roster and sees no reason why the Illini can't compete in the Big Ten.
At this point, who can argue?
Tracy Abrams scored a career-high 27 points and No. 12 Illinois tuned up for conference play with an 81-79 victory over Auburn on Saturday.
The Illini (13-1) saw an 11-point lead shrink to one in the closing minutes but they prevailed after falling to Missouri in the Braggin' Rights game a week earlier - their first loss under coach John Groce. Their next game is the conference opener at Purdue on Wednesday, and Paul believes they are ready.
He sees more confidence and more talent than in recent years.
"I just feel like we have a lot more weapons and a lot more confidence, not only in myself but the guys that I play with," Paul said. "They come in with the mindset that they're going to compete every game and play hard and what's going to dictate the end of the game is how we play."
They had to scratch and claw for this one, and things got real tense when Frankie Sullivan buried a 3 for Auburn (5-7) to make it 68-67 with 4:29 remaining. Illinois then hit 13 of 18 free throws the rest of the way for a rare win at the United Center, where they had dropped three straight and five of six after winning 18 in a row.
They can thank Abrams.
The sophomore guard came up big on a day when Paul was off target, going 6 of 11 from the field and 13 of 15 from the free throw line while eclipsing his previous high by five points.
Paul, meanwhile, finished with 13 points but hit just 3 of 12 shots. He missed all five 3-point attempts and the Illini again struggled from the outside, going 4 of 15 after hitting 8 of 32 against Missouri.
Even so, they head into conference play on a winning note.
"We going to stay level," Abrams said. "We're going to try to execute our game plan."
Sullivan led Auburn with 21 points. Rob Chubb scored 13, and Allen Payne chipped in with 10 points and 10 rebounds. But the Tigers committed 20 turnovers - six by Chris Denson and five by Sullivan - even though Illinois wasn't pressing.
"They didn't press us one time, and we had over 20 turnovers," coach Tony Barbee said.
He called that "just inexcusable," and Sullivan wasn't about to argue.
"We were just being lazy with the ball, not executing," Sullivan said. "It was more us (making mental mistakes), because they weren't really pressuring us."
Josh Wallace hit a 3-pointer at the final buzzer for Auburn to make it a two-point game, but by then, the Illini had sealed the win.
Both teams hit 16 of 30 shots in the first half, but Illinois took a 47-42 lead with Abrams scoring 16 points. He hit two free throws with 4 minutes left in the half to break a 39-39 tie and start a 14-5 run that stretched into the second half.
The only points for Auburn during that stretch came on a three-point play by Wallace with 2:22 remaining before halftime and two free throws by Chubb with 17:15 left in the game before D.J. Richardson hit two of his own for Illinois, making it 53-44.
The Tigers went more than 7 minutes without a field goal before Sullivan's layup with 15 minutes remaining. But Paul answered with a wild one of his own, flipping the ball over his shoulder and into the basket as he slipped near the baseline.
That was one of the highlight reel plays in a game that Groce said was the "grindiest 80-point game I've been involved in."
Now, the real grind is beginning.
Groce, an assistant at Ohio State before taking the head coaching job at Ohio University, knows what to expect.
"Home, road, all of them are fistfights," he said. "It's a great league. Toughness is really, really important. Execution is really important and then players making plays is important."