Illinois faces Clemson next in the NIT.
BOSTON — So much scuttlebutt about second-seeded Illinois having to go on the road in the NIT because of the renovation to State Farm Center. But on Wednesday night at Boston University’s Agganis Arena, Illini players walked off the court slapping hands with orange-and-blue-clad fans on one side of the arena following their 66-62 win against the seventh-seeded Terriers.
“You’re the man, Rayvonte!” one fan shouted at Rayvonte Rice. “Way to keep battling, Tracy!” another one shouted at point guard Tracy Abrams.
On the other side of the building, the Illinois fans sang the school’s alma mater, “Hail to the Orange,” as Boston University’s players walked off the court. Of the 1,327 fans inside Agganis Arena for the opening round of the NIT, 1,000 of them were cheering for the visitors from more than 1,000 miles to the west.
It wasn’t played on their home court, but the Illini had homecourt advantage in Beantown, and it proved to be the lift they needed when battling back from a 17-point deficit to advance to play at third-seeded Clemson in a second-round game.
“They’re everywhere, and it really just boosts our team up to see orange in the stands like that,” said senior Joseph Bertrand, who scored nine points off the bench. “We had more fans here than they did, and that really helped us push through the game.”
The fans provided a lift, sure, but let’s not allow that to diminish the effort of Rice, who poured in a game-high 28 points, 20 of which came in the second half. The junior pulled down eight rebounds, and his lone steal came in the final two minutes with the Illini down by four. He converted the ensuing layup, got fouled and hit the free throw to lead the late Illinois charge.
“I thought Ray was a monster,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “He sent me a text the other day saying he was ready to go, and he was.”
“My teammates were doing a good job finding me and put me in position to be successful,” Rice said.
Overall, though, the Illini (20-14) didn’t seem ready to go as the Terriers (24-11) jumped to a 30-17 lead in the first half, making 7 of 15 three-point attempts. Twice during Boston University’s 18-2 first-half run, Groce called timeout and laid into his team in the huddle, asking if it was ready to play.
“I felt like (Boston University) was more ready, to be honest,” Groce said. “I thought we were soft, and I hate to say it because I don’t like to insult, but stupid early. I didn’t think we were real smart.”
Defense, Illinois’ calling card much of the season, was porous in the first half as Terriers point guard Maurice Watson Jr. (seven points, 12 assists) had his way.
But thanks to Rice, Malcolm Hill (10 points, eight rebounds) and that big-time crowd, the Illini rallied to advance and extend the careers of Bertrand and Jon Ekey (six points).
At this stage, it’s almost as if the Illini shouldn’t be counted out of any situation. They’ve gotten themselves into the postseason despite an eight-game losing streak and came from behind Wednesday against a red-hot Boston club to survive.
“I’m proud of our guys, most importantly for not getting discouraged,” Groce said. “Our guys just kept fighting.”