LINCOLN, Neb. — When the Illinois players were introduced during starting lineups Tuesday at the Devaney Center, Nebraska’s fans, some dressed in red, others in white in a failed stripe-the-arena experiment, applauded each Illini and coach John Groce.
Nebraska folks are nice like that.
But despite the hospitality, Illinois did its best to send the Huskers’ faithful home in a foul mood, posting a 71-51 win in front of 9,556.
And by the time it was all over, the happy-go-lucky folks from the Great Plains were plenty upset.
They hit the exits with four minutes left, but not before showering the officials with boos as calls went against their team just as it was cutting into Illinois’ lead midway through the second half.
“It’s a big win to get this one on the road, especially after what happened to us here last year,” D.J. Richardson said of Nebraska’s 80-57 thumping of the Illini last year that left some in tears.
There were no tears Tuesday, just smiles and high-fives outside an Illinois locker room where a dozen fans dressed in orange and blue gathered to congratulate the players.
Richardson, who called a players-only meeting earlier in the week, did his part to get the Illini (15-5, 2-4 Big Ten) back on track, pouring in a career-high 30 points while making a career-best six three-pointers.
“D.J. was unbelievable. It’s one thing to get 30 at the other end while you’re simultaneously guarding a really good offensive player,” Groce said of Richardson, who held Nebraska’s top scorer, Ray Gallegos, to five points.
“It’s not very often in my career that I’ve coached a guy as an assistant or a head coach that a guy had 30 and has to expend so much energy on the defensive end while he’s doing it. That was what was most impressive.”
Richardson moved into third place all time at Illinois in career three-pointers made. With 241 career treys, Richardson trails Dee Brown (299) and Cory Bradford (327).
After dropping five of seven games, the Illini dropped out of the Top 25 this week. They played Tuesday like the team that climbed as high as No. 10 in the national rankings while dismantling the Huskers (10-10, 1-6).
A fourth straight loss would have put Illinois’ back squarely against the wall in terms of postseason prospects. Though the message in the locker room was simply to get back on the winning side.
“I don’t think that way. We just didn’t play very good,” said Groce, who picked up his 100th career coaching win. “We’ve got good kids. Their attitude has been off the charts. They come to practice every day ready to practice. I think others might have felt that way, but we’ve got a good group.”
Brandon Paul, whose 14 points moved him past Jerry Hester into 15th on the Illinois career list (1,416), was the only other Illini to score in double figures, but the contributions were spread throughout.
Joseph Bertrand (seven points, eight rebounds) set a career high with five steals, and Nnanna Egwu (eight points) grabbed 10 boards. Tyler Griffey, who one Nebraska fan accused of being vicious, grabbed six, and Sam McLaurin, who opened the game with an explosive two-handed dunk while backing down a defender, tied a season high with seven points.
“Our guys, their effort level was off the charts on the defensive end. Maybe as consistent as we’ve been with our effort in a couple weeks from start to finish. I think it clearly started there,” Groce said. “I thought we got contributions from a lot of different guys that played in the game at both ends of the floor.”
D.J. Richardson had a career night, bagging six three-pointers in scoring 30 points to help earn coach John Groce his 100th career victory.
What the Huskers said
“We played with zero pride.” — coach Tim Miles’ halftime tweet
What the Illini said
“Obviously any time you can get a road win in this league, you take it and run before they change the score.” — coach John Groce
What it means
Despite the recent three-game slide, the Illini still have some fight in them and they can put the memories of last year’s loss at Nebraska behind them as well as a nine-game Big Ten road losing streak.
The Illini will look to pick up their third win of the season against a Top 10 team Sunday, when No. 2 Michigan comes to town for the first of four straight games against teams currently ranked in the Top 15.