CHICAGO - A loose ball grabbed here, a shot made there and Auburn's basketball team could have celebrated the biggest victory of the Tony Barbee era Saturday. Instead, the Tigers came were left to wonder what might have been.
Allen Payne had his first career double-double for Auburn
The Tigers came oh so close, but the Fighting Illini escaped with an 81-79 victory at the United Center, home of the Chicago Bulls.
“At the end of the day it comes down to those mean nasty tough plays I talk about," said Barbee, in his third season as Auburn head coach. "We had a lot of those opportunities to come up with. We got them to miss shots and there was a missed rebound, and they come up with it. We get our hand on the ball. It squibs on the floor, and there are two guys staring at it, us and them. We stare at it. They go get it.
"Those are the plays that make the difference in the game today. We played at a high enough level to win this game, but that is what makes the difference in the game.”
Illinois improved to 13-1. Auburn fell to 5-7 and plays its final nonconference game Wednesday night against Florida State at Auburn Arena.
Frankie Sullivan scored 21 points and hit 5-of12 3-pointers for Auburn. Allen Payne had his first career double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Center Rob Chubb had 13 points and five rebounds. It was almost enough.
Illinois opened the second half with a 10-4 run for a 57-46 lead with 13:17 remaining as the Tigers missed seven of their first nine shots. A Noel Johnson 3-pointer and a Chris Denson fast break layup brought the Tigers to within 59-53 with 10:48 to play.
A Sullivan 3-pointer cut the Illini lead to 66-61. Payne's three-point play brought the Tigers to within 68-64 with 5:36 remaining. Another Sullivan long range 3 cut the lead to 68-67 with 4:29 to play.
he Tigers had a chance to take the lead but Sullivan missed a contested shot in the lane and Asauhn Dixon-Tatum was called for a foul on the other end with 3:47 to play.
Turnovers and free throws proved to be the difference for Illinois. Auburn had 20 turnovers to Illinois' 11 and Illinois had a 19-6 edge in points off turnovers. At the free throw line, Illinois was 27-of-40 and Auburn was 10-of-16.
Barbee said the Tigers have to learn from Saturday's near miss and move on.
"There is no such thing as a moral victory,” Barbee said. “We came in here to get this job done, and we didn’t. We gave ourselves some opportunities. Like I told the guys, we have one game left in the first stage of the season, in the non-conference schedule. We have to move on past this, and we have to go get that, but the first thing we have to do is address why we didn’t get this one today."
Auburn held Wooden Award candidate Brandon Paul to 13 points on 3-of-12 shooting. He missed all five of his 3-point attempts. Paul came into the game ranked second in the Big Ten averaging 19.2 points per game.
Each team shot 48 percent from the floor. Auburn was a season-high 11-of-23 (.478) from 3-point range while Illinois went 4-of-15. The Tigers outrebounded the Illini 39-27 and had a 24-7 advantage in second-chance points.