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Illini climb back into Big Ten picture

(MCT) — Suddenly, the Illini are relevant again in Big Ten Conference basketball.

Illinois, which defeated Indiana 74-72 last Thursday and Minnesota 57-53 on Sunday, has found a smooth groove after losing seven of its nine league games.

The Illini, 17-8 overall and 4-7 in the Big Ten, welcome Purdue at 8 p.m. Wednesday and then play at 6:30 Sunday night in Evanston against Northwestern. The Big Ten network is televising both games.

“We had two big wins last week, but the most important thing is how we played,” first-year U of I coach John Groce said. “We played with toughness and togetherness.

“We played the right way.”

It sure was the winning way. St. Louisan Tyler Griffey, a 6-foot-9 senior, hit the winning shot against Indiana and then scored 16 points as Illinois got some payback at Minnesota. Teammate D.J. Richardson averaged 18 points in those pair of wins over top-20 teams and shared Big Ten Player of the Week honors with Wisconsin’s Ben Brust.

Richardson, a Peoria native, netted a game-high 23 points in the home win over Indiana and contributed 13 points at Minnesota, a team Illinois lost to at Assembly Hall earlier this season.

“We’re maturing and getting better,” Groce said. “I was impressed with the way we came back from double-digit deficits in both games.”

Those much-needed wins came on the heels of six losses in seven games and the Illini wondering what went awry. Groce said he could see improvement coming, even when Illinois wasn’t winning.

“We re-committed ourselves defensively,” he said of the turnabout.

He said, “We also stayed the course and stayed positive. I was really happy for our guys about what we did last week. It has given them a jolt of confidence and energy.”

Illinois is angling to carry that energy all the way to the conference tournament, set for March 14-17 at Chicago’s United Center.

Following their two games this week, the Illini welcome Penn State (Feb. 21), go to Michigan (Feb. 24) and entertain Nebraska (March 2).

So they are trying to build some momentum before closing out their league slate at Iowa (March 5) and Ohio State (March 10).

“There are a lot of really good players in our league and many dual players who can do multiple things,” Groce said, assessing the quality of play. “That’s why are league is so good.”

He isn’t looking past Purdue, which beat Illinois 68-61 on Jan. 2 at West Lafayette, Ind.

The Boilermakers, 12-12 overall and 5-6 in the Big Ten, rely on 7-foot, 280-pound freshman center A.J. Hammons of Carmel, Ind., to stir them.

He’s averaging 11.3 and 6.8 rebounds per game. Teron Johnson, a 6-2 junior guard from Indianapolis, leads the Boilers with a 12.7 ppg.

“Hammons is a big target and he’s getting better,” Groce said. “He certainly has all the tools.”

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