CHAMPAIGN - Midway through the second half of Sunday's 75-66 exhibition win against West Chester (Pa.), coach John Groce's voice raised a few decibels.
Timeout, he screamed. Three times and really loud.
The Golden Rams had just reeled off a 15-7 run, cutting the Illini lead to 19.
First Groce watched his team huddle. He paced and crossed his arms. Then he kneeled down in front of his team and addressed the issues, comprised mostly of turnovers and inconsistency.
"Tonight in the second half I don't know if we were quite as mentally locked in as we needed to be," Groce said.
The timeout worked momentarily, with Illinois maintaining a 71-52 lead with just over three minutes left to play.
Groce emptied the bench and West Chester promptly came roaring back. A 12-2 run forced Groce to put his starters back in to finish the game.
"You can't fool the players," Groce said. "They know we didn't come close to playing a full game. I thought we played well for 20 minutes of it."
The Rams won the first seven minutes of the game, taking a 12-11 lead into the first media timeout.
Out of the break, the Illini answered with the best run of play seen in either of the two exhibition games. The Illini scored 16 straight points, including six from Joseph Bertrand and four by Tracy Abrams. Illinois eventually took a 44-20 lead into halftime, paced by Abrams' 10 points.
"I thought the last 15 minutes of the first half we were terrific," Groce said. "I thought we made a lot of hustle plays, diving on loose balls, charge attempts, blocked shots. I thought we were flowing to the ball. Guys were reacting."
Abrams scored a game-high 17 in his return to the starting lineup. Logging 31 minutes, Abrams remained on the attack, hit 8-of-10 free throws and grabbed seven rebounds.
Groce said the sophomore point guard has steadily improved since struggling out of the gate in mid-October, calling his last week of practice "outstanding."
Abrams said his play has gotten better by "just learning the system, watching film and understanding the pace of when I need to go fast and when I need to go slow and when I need to get my teammates involved."
Abrams started in place of Brandon Paul, who scored 12 off the bench. Sam McLaurin was another new face in the first five, scoring 11 points and pulling down nine rebounds. Bertrand joined in double-digits scoring, adding 13 on 6-of-8 shooting.
The rotation consisted mainly of eight players, with Mike LaTulip providing five minutes off the bench as the ninth man, a number Groce has consistently referred to as his desired target.
As to who will start Friday's season opener against Colgate, Groce said that's still to be determined.
"Every role that we have on the team, I tell the guys all the time, is important," he said. "It's just different. Everybody's role's different. It doesn't mean anybody is more important."
The positives from the scrimmage included improved free throw shooting (80 percent, 21-of-26) and a healthy 39-24 margin in rebounding, including 11 offensive boards.
The negatives came in the form of 21 turnovers and a 6-for-22 shooting performance from the 3-point line.
"We still got to work to do," Abrams said. "There's always room for improvement. Like coach said, we came out tonight and played 20 minutes. We've got to improve and be more constant and stay level like coach tells us. We've got to stay at a level pace all the time, no matter what happens."