Loren Tate: Illini show drive on road
During Tuesday’s first half in Las Vegas, 6-foot-9 Roscoe Smith, 6-8 Khem Birch and the athletic UNLV leapers blocked seven Illini shots.
What do you do when you’re being rejected?
You keep driving, penetrating and forcing action. Wear ’em down. And the final line plunge by Rayvonte Rice capped an unusual scoring chart for the 61-59 winners: Illinois bagged 6 of 18 treys, and the other 18 goals came on drive-ins or putbacks.
No baskets off pivot play. No 10-foot runners or 17-foot jumpers. Shooting poorly, John Groce’s gang compensated with an attacking style that carried them directly into the heart of the Rebels’ touted lane security.
Rice performed as though he was still a halfback for Centennial. The UI’s Bull in a China Shop barged repeatedly into the thick of it, sometimes outnumbered and challenging taller rejecters.
Bodies flew. That’s where the 6-4, 235-pound Rice is different from departed scorers Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. He doesn’t try to avoid contact. He draws it — or rather demands it. His style should bring loads of free throws with the way officials are asked to call the game. You can’t guard him without contact.
When Groce huddled up for the final play call, he set up picks to allow Rice to gash the defense one last time. The nearly blocked layup gave him 25 points and the Illini a hard-earned comeback win.
Illinois extended its remarkable November run of 25 straight victories in the 11th month, the victims including North Carolina, Southern Cal, Butler, Georgia Tech and upcoming Big Ten member Maryland twice (three wins against Gonzaga came in early December).
With five freshmen coming off the bench in their first road experience, the results were positive.
Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert combined to convert three crucial putbacks as part of the UI’s robust 15-rebound attack on the offensive glass. Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill contributed two points apiece and, most important of all, Jaylen Tate had five assists, including three straight to Nnanna Egwu, as the Illini rallied after halftime.
When the Rebels made their final surge, going ahead 57-51 as Illini shots misfired, the UI veterans pulled it out of the fire ... first Egwu, then Joseph Bertrand, then Jon Ekey and finally Rice in a 10-2 finish.
Looking back, the Illini survived (1) an 11-0 UNLV run before halftime, (2) nine straight first-half free throws by the worst shooting team in the country and (3) Kevin Olekaibe’s corner trey that clanged off the rim at :01.
“Everyone contributed,” Groce said. “Everyone made a play. People will look at what Rice and Egwu did, but we don’t win without those freshmen.”
Oh, and did you notice: UNLV had just one field goal and two free throws in the last 6:40.
— In a 12-point second half, Egwu demonstrated how critical it is for the junior center to be on the court. Groce surprisingly employed a zone defense much of the first half to avoid fouls (and test UNLV’s erratic shooting), but Egwu picked up two personals and was on the court just four minutes in the half.
— Ekey was coming off consecutive 19-point games and didn’t fare well against UConn transfer Smith. Ekey was scoreless (0 for 5) before coming through in the clutch with the tying trey at 59-59 with 2:21 to go.
— Take away 18 layups, dunks and putbacks, and the Illini shot poorly inside the arc. In fact, they didn’t make a basket on 31 other non-arc attempts, nine of which were blocked. Last season’s Illini shot 41.2 percent, second lowest in 45 UI seasons, and this team shows 42.9 through six games. As the schedule toughens, it may be difficult for this team to stay in the 43 percent realm ... even with all those drive-ins. They shot 35.8 percent Tuesday.
(Editor’s note: When Illinois beat UNLV 73-62 in the 2011 NCAA tournament, freshman Jereme Richmond was on suspension. Was that a harbinger of things to come for a young man who is now in prison?)
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.