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Illini rally around Rice to beat Huskers

It wasn’t a signature win, or a blowout, or even all that pretty at times, but Illinois got the job done on Wednesday night. With expectations high and fate hanging in the balance, the Illini did what a good team does: What they had to. In beating Nebraska 69-57, Illinois pushed itself one step closer to its goal and closed out its home season with a flourish.

The win ensures the Illini (19-11, 9-8) will finish with a .500 record or better in Big Ten play for the first time in head coach John Groce’s tenure. And, in the final game of State Farm Center (née, Assembly Hall) as we’ve known it, the seniors sent the fans off with a win.

“The seniors had that look in their eye like they weren’t going to let us lose. … Ray [Rice] and Nnanna [Egwu] willed us,” Groce said.

Wednesday’s game was not the creampuff that Northwestern was for Illinois four days prior, though. Rather than the soft zone that the Wildcats played, Nebraska came at Illinois with a physical, grinding defense that really halted the hosts’ flow at the start of both halves. At the beginning of the game the Huskers rattled off a quick 9-3 run to take the early lead before Illinois regained its footing and went on a 14-3 run to snag a lead of its own. After that initial run it was fairly back and forth with the score favoring the Illini. Right before halftime Nebraska made an easy buzzer-beating lay-up and then rode the momentum from that to a 13-0 run through the first 3:30 of the second half, grabbing a lead of 36-31. Illinois would rally back, however, and would only lose the lead once more, 40-39 for 32 seconds, before taking over the game.

The catalyst for Illinois’s takeover was Rayvonte Rice, who really took over the game by himself. On senior night, and his final game in front of the home crowds, the Champaign native stood tall. After scoring just 6 points in the first half, Rice tore it up in the second half, dropping another 17 points on the Huskers for a total of 23 for the game. But not only was his shooting good, it was timely. Rice hit big threes with the clock winding down and drove the lane with authority when needed. His play was every bit as good as any game prior to his injury and suspension, which is certainly a scary notion for future opponents.

Rice’s play was also emblematic of the Illini as a group. Against the physicality of Nebraska’s defense, the Illini had to hit back in order to stay in the game. Accordingly, they played with aggression, attacking the defense and drawing many fouls. Illinois went to the free throw line 23 times and made 20 shots, a crucial component in the victory. Malcolm Hill, who once again struggled from the field, did the majority of his work from the free throw line, scoring 7 of his 10 points there.

No one besides Rice really stood above the field on Wednesday, but Groce seemed to appreciate that about his team.

“We’re that type of team where we need everybody,” he said after the game.

True to form, Illinois had 8 players receive more than 10 minutes on the floor and half of that group score in double digits. Freshman Leron Black had his best game in months, with 11 points, 5 rebounds and even an assist. Likewise, Kendrick Nunn continued to give a solid effort, adding 11 points of his own in the victory.

As always, Nnanna Egwu played a role that greatly exceeded his scoring contribution (6 points), as the senior was a catalyst at both ends. His 4 blocks were the building blocks upon which Illinois built its rallies, his rebounding was a direct link to transition baskets, and his dunk at the end of the game was the cherry on top. Fans that don’t respect the greatness of Egwu’s career at Illinois yet will certainly do so by this time next year; what he gave the Illini was truly special.

But the season isn’t over, and a win at Purdue on Saturday would go a long way to extending Illinois’s season even further. The expectations are there for the Illini, and repeated ad infinitum by writers like me, so the team knows what this has all come down to. But if they play like they did Wednesday evening — if they take care of business the way good teams do — then we’ll be seeing more of the Illini yet this year.

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