- Scott Powers, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- Something changed in Illinois sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams from the time he went home for Christmas to when he returned to campus this week.
In the few days of practice leading up to Saturday’s game against Auburn, Illinois coach John Groce began to see Abrams play with a different speed and mentality than he ever did.
“Have you ever read the book ‘112 degrees’?” Groce asked Saturday. “It’s when water boils. All of a sudden two days ago, it started boiling for him.”
What the Illini had seen the past few days, Abrams displayed to the public in the Illini’s 81-79 win over Auburn at the United Center. Playing fast and determined, Abrams had a career-high 27 points to go along with eight rebounds, five assists, one turnover and four steals in 35 minutes.
Abrams didn’t have those numbers in mind coming into the game, but he did tell himself and others he was going to take it to Auburn from the tip.
“He came out with the mindset, ‘I’m going to attack,’” Illinois sophomore center Nnanna Egwu said. “He even told me before the game he was going to attack and come out aggressive. He did a great job.”
Abrams didn’t provide an explanation for why his game changed. It was just something he felt he and the team needed.
“I was just pushing the ball more than I think I did any other game this season,” said Abrams, a Chicago native. “We’ve been pushing the ball a lot in practice, and I wanted to start the game off like that. I just took what they gave me, just going to the hole.”
The aggressive nature delighted Groce, but he was even more pleased with Abrams’ decision-making. He drove when Auburn gave him a lane. He found teammates when they were open. He didn’t take risks.
Abrams had committed at least three turnovers in eight of Illinois’ first 13 games and was averaging 2.9 turnovers.
“Five assists, one (turnover) playing 35 minutes against a team that’s top 50 in the country in forcing turnovers, I thought he did an excellent job taking care of the ball,” Groce said. “I think it’s more finding that balance between attacking when it’s there for yourself and attacking and seeing what they give you and how you can make guys better. I thought the last 2-3 days of practice and including today he’s done that at the highest level all season.”
Finding that balance between looking for himself to score and creating opportunities for others has been a focus for Abrams when working with Illinois assistant coach Jamall Walker.
“That’s what he has to do,” Walker said. “That’s something all point guards in American struggle with until they figure it out. That’s important to his development moving forward this year and the next few years.”
While Abrams has room to grow in that area, his toughness and determination are already where Groce wants them to be. That showed with the game on the line on Saturday.
After Auburn pulled within one point with 4:28 remaining, Abrams did all he could to make sure Illinois and its seniors won in Chicago for the first time in four years. In the final four minutes, Abrams scored seven points, hit 7 of 8 free throws, grabbed three rebounds and had one steal.
“How about a couple of those (rebounds) he dug out late?” Groce said. “He’s in there battling with trees. He’s a tough dude. He is. He’s a tough dude. He’s a tough dude. He’s working on getting better at some things, but when you coach him, you never ever question that kid’s toughness. I mean he’s a tough dude.”