INDIANAPOLIS — Illinois had been in this position before against Indiana.
In the last game of January, the Illini trailed the Hoosiers by two at the half in Bloomington, only to be outscored 14-5 in the early minutes after the break. They never recovered and lost their sixth straight in what became a nearly devastating eight-game losing streak.
On Thursday here, though, in the opening game of the Big Ten tournament, the Illini continued to rewrite the script.
A hard-fought 64-54 victory — its second of the season against the Hoosiers — advanced Illinois (19-13) to a second-round matchup with mighty Michigan. The Wolverines, regular-season league champs, blasted the Illini by 31 on March 4 in Champaign.
The Illini led by two at the half this time, then watched the Hoosiers rip off a 10-3 spurt out of the locker room for a 38-33 edge. This time, the No. 9-seeded Illini didn’t cave. A perfectly timed 11-0 run put them back in command.
Junior point guard Tracy Abrams had one of the best games of his career, scoring 25 points and adding seven rebounds.
Illinois moved to 6-2 all-time against Indiana in the Big Ten tournament. With another victory on Friday, the Illini would be in the semifinals for a league-leading 13th time.
An NIT bid at the least now seems a near certainty. The NCAA Tournament is another matter; CBS Sports “bracketologist” Jerry Palm told the Sun-Times Thursday that the Illini need at least two more victories before they’ll “even be considered” by the NCAA selection committee.