Sizzling Illinois cruised past Auburn

David Purdum, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

ATLANTA -- Thanks to a hot-shooting display, Illinois bounced back from its first loss of the season.
The Fighting Illini hit 12 3-pointers and shot 61.5 percent from the floor in a convincing 81-62 win over Auburn on Sunday at Philips Arena.
Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice, a junior-college transfer, led the way with 22 points. He has scored in double figures in each of his first nine games with the Illini.
Guard Tracy Abrams added 17 points, and forward Jon Akey finished with 14 in the Illini's second game in Atlanta this week. Illinois squandered a late 12-point lead in a disappointing loss at Georgia Tech on Tuesday, then ran into travel delays returning home in the middle of the week.
It didn't show Sunday. The Illini put Auburn away quickly and decisively.
The Illini (8-1) got off to a fast start, carving up Auburn's man-to-man defense for easy shots around the basket and open jumpers from outside. Ekey hit two 3-points from the wing and had a layup as the Illinois jumped out a 20-11 lead at the midway point of the first half.
"The thing I enjoyed the most was the response from our guys after Tuesday night," Illinois coach John Groce said. "That was as good of a start as we've had had in the first half. Tonight, for the first time, I think both the offensive and defensive ends were an 'A.' That was the best we've played all year in the first half."
Auburn (4-3) struggled to find a rhythm in its half-court offense and turned it over nine times in the first half. The Tigers managed just four points in the final 7:47 of the first half. Auburn went to the locker room down 41-17 after Abrams drained the Illini's seventh 3-pointer of the first half at the buzzer.
"Our shooting in general wasn't very good. We couldn't make layups. We couldn't make jump shots. We couldn't make anything," Auburn coach Tony Barbee said. "Give them credit, they made shots, but when you put any pressure on the opposing team, by being anemic as we were on offense in the first half, then there is no pressure on them. We put them in their comfort zone."
The Auburn football team won the SEC championship at the Georgia Dome on Saturday, but there weren't a lot of War Eagle fans left over. In fact, Philips Arena was less than half full for the SEC-Big Ten matchup.
"I think we just came out flat and not with enough energy," Auburn freshman point guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen said, "In the second half, we played with more sense of urgency. We have worked on it practice, but I guess we just have to keep working on it."
Illinois' lead ballooned to 30 early in the second half. The Tigers, who were picked to finish last in the SEC by the media, never seriously threatened. Guard KT Harrell led Auburn with 23 points, and Shamsid-Deen added 13 points. Guard Chris Denson, the team's leading scorer, was held to a season-low eight points.
Abrams, who along with Akey was battling an illness this week, led Illinois with seven rebounds and five assists.
"I thought (Abrams) was the guy who sparked everything in the first half," Groce said. "He understood who the hot hand was and got them ball. He moved the ball well and really pushed the pace. I just felt like he had a really good pulse for what was going on out there."
NOTES: The Illini will play five games at NBA arenas this season, including a game Saturday against Oregon at the Moda Center in Portland. ... Illinois plays host to Dartmouth on Tuesday. ... Auburn returns home to host Clemson on Dec. 19. ... Former Auburn and NBA star Charles Barkley was in attendance. ... Auburn G Chris Denson entered Sunday's game as the SEC's leading scorer, averaging 21.8 points per game. ... Illinois improved to 21-2 in non-conference, regular-season games under coach John Groce. ... Illinois beat Auburn 81-79 last season at the United Center in Chicago. ... After turning the ball over nine times in the first half, the Tigers committed only four turnovers in the second half.

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