Rice, Illini hit jackpot in win
LAS VEGAS — Minutes after the red-clad UNLV fans had made a beeline to the exits after Illinois’ come-from-behind 61-59 win at the Thomas & Mack Center on Tuesday, Rayvonte Rice stood a few feet away from the Illinois bench, surrounded by a few of the 100 or so Illini fans who remained in the arena, posing for photos and signing autographs for anyone who asked.
A few feet away in an orange Illinois No. 24 jersey with “Rice” ironed on the back, Rhonda Rice beamed with pride as Illini fans celebrated her son. She made the trip from Champaign, part of a vow she made before the season to try to attend every Illinois game this season.
“I’m still trying to get to every single one,” said Rhonda, who was busy receiving congratulations on the floor from Illinois fans and Thomas & Mack Center ushers for her son’s performance.
Her son made the trip to Sin City worthwhile for mom, scoring a game-high 25 points, including a layup in traffic to break a 59-59 tie with 27.9 seconds sending the Illini (6-0) to a 61-59 win in front of a raucous 13,747 at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“She travels, she tries not to miss (any) games and it’s great having my family and the fans here tonight,” Rice said. “We’ve got great fans traveling with us, that helps a lot.”
The UNLV fans, which included legendary Runnin’ Rebels coach Jerry Tarkanian and Flavor Flav, the Public Enemy rapper who later returned to fame as a reality television star, recognized the brilliance of Rice, too.
With 4:46 remaining in the game with the Rebels (2-3) leading 57-54, the Thomas & Mack public address announcer incorrectly credited a Jaylon Tate foul to Rice, which would have been his fourth. The Rebels fans cheered as if Stacey Augmon had made another circus layup. When the call was corrected, they booed, wishing they were one play away from the best player in the building becoming a spectator.
“One of the things I’ve always said about winning road games against good teams like UNLV, you’ve got to have big-time players make big-time plays,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “Ray Rice, 25 and 10 (rebounds), plus the game winner, would probably qualify as big-time players making big-time plays. He made a lot of them.”
He wasn’t the only one. Jon Ekey was 0 for 4 from behind the three-point line before he buried a trey from the right wing to tie the game at 59 with 2:21 left.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in him and I think his teammates do as well. We drew the play up for him, it was a timely one,” said Groce, whose team held UNLV scoreless for the final 4:17.
Nnanna Egwu, who played only four minutes in the first half after picking up his second foul seven minutes into the game, scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half.
“I learned the four Ts about our team today: We had great teamism — don’t look that up in the dictionary because I created that word,” Groce said. “I thought we were really tough, I thought we were really together and I thought we trusted one another, especially in the second half.”
Rice scored Illinois’ first seven points of the second half, including a personal 5-0 run to cut the Rebels’ intermission lead in half. Rice, who was four points shy of matching the career-high he set at Drake, collected four of Illinois’ seven steals.
“I’ve been telling you this since last year when he wasn’t playing. I told you he was going to be this kind of player and this is what I thought for the last year and a half,” Egwu said. “I know what he can do and it’s good for him to come into games like this and showcase what kind of player he is.”
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Freshmen step up. No one was sure how Illinois’ five freshmen would respond, playing in their first collegiate road game on Tuesday and those wondering didn’t have to wait long to find out.
With Egwu picking up the early fouls, big men Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert were pressed into duty early in the first half and they handled themselves well.
Morgan (four points, four rebounds) turned two of his three offensive rebounds into put-back buckets and Colbert converted a put back of his own.
Malcolm Hill, Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn, also got in on the action, playing a pivitol role in the victory.
“I don’t know if it happens without the gutsy poise and ability to perform like the freshmen did in their first-ever road game,” Groce said. Whether it’s put backs by Morgan and Colbert, five assists to one turnover by Tate, making both free throws by Hill, Nunn’s drive in the second half and he popped a couple balls defensively that he got his hands on. We don’t get that done without those guys.”
The veteran teammates took note of the young guys’ contributions, too.
“It was great for Austin and Maverick to do what they did; they played extremely well. It was good for our team that we bounced back like that and for Mav and Austin to come in and produce the way that they did,” Egwu said.
Said Rice: “They came in ready tonight. Kendrick put in some productive minutes, Jaylon always does. Mav, Austin, everybody contributed tonight.”
Egwu extends range. Egwu’s 5 for 7 shooting night included a 2 for 3 showing from behind the three-point line. The 6-foot-11 forward/center entered the game 1 for 6 in is career from long range and after missing his first attempt Tuesday, he buried the next two as the Rebels dared him to shoot it from deep.
“We kind of knew how they played. They sink into the paint and we knew I might be open,” Egwu said. “We just kept pushing it, kept doing the same things. Sometimes the shots weren’t falling, but we kept going to them. We just kept attacking.”
Quick turnaround. The Illini spent Tuesday night in Las Vegas instead of flying back to campus on their charter. With Friday’s game against IPFW coming up right after the Thanksgiving holiday, Groce opted to remain in town to begin preparation for that game.
“Tonight, we’ll get them back as quickly as they can. We’re going to let them get their eight- to 10-hour sleep cycle, I think that’s really important with a Friday tip,” Groce said. “Tomorrow’s practice will be a lot of film and weights here. We’ll load the plane up and track it three hours back and finish our prep Thursday and play a good IPFW team on Friday.”