Illini earn NIT quarterfinal spot behind late surge
CHAMPAIGN — Made shots and defensive stops.
Illinois wasn't exactly brimming with either through two-thirds of Monday night's second-round NIT matchup against Boise State at State Farm Center.
But with the Broncos threatening the upset —what would have been the end of what's been the definition of a roller-coaster season for Illinois — the Illini responded with made shots and defensive stops late.
Stringing them together through the final 8 minutes meant a 71-56 victory against Boise State in front of 5,713 fans and a spot in Wednesday's NIT semifinal in Orlando against Central Florida.
"These guys are the epitome of (the fight) in the program," interim coach Jamall Walker said about his senior leaders. "I'm just kind of following their lead. If they want to keep advancing, I'm going to keep getting on planes and buses and getting them prepared."
The last 10 days has seen Illinois lose one head coach with John Groce's March 11 firing and find the motivation to win three days later against Valparaiso to open the NIT. Then the Illini got a new coach when Brad Underwood was hired Saturday, and they found the inspiration — particularly late —for another victory.
"As the leaders, me and Malcolm (Hill), we’re not going to be back next year," sixth-year guard Tracy Abrams said. He led the Illini (20-14) with 18 points, while Hill had 13 and passed Dee Brown for third all-time on Illinois' career scoring list.
“We’ve got to focus on the (2016-17) team,” Abrams continued. “Finishing strong and keep fighting. That’s the mindset.”
“I think we’ve been doing a great job of still thinking about the next game and giving it all,” Hill added.
Illinois' continued resolve in the NIT was something Boise State (20-12) noticed as well.
"They looked like they were out there playing hard for each other," Broncos guard Chandler Hutchison said. "They were battling down low. Their bigs kind of out-toughed us at times. I wouldn't have even noticed if I didn't know about the ordeal (of the coaching change)."
"They're going through crazy times," Boise State coach Leon Rice added. "It's never easy when you change coaches. Coach Walker and his staff have done an amazing job. They played with great energy tonight with a lot of distractions and a lot going on."
“They’re going through crazy times,” Boise State coach Leon Rice added. “It’s never easy when you change coaches. Coach Walker and his staff have done an amazing job. They played with great energy (Monday) with a lot of distractions and a lot going on.”