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12/29/2012 6:17 PM EST
Abrams scores 27, Illinois beats Auburn 81-79
ILLINOIS 81, AUBURN 79

By ANDREW SELIGMAN
AP Sports Writer

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."

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