UI 72, Dartmouth 65: 'A big challenge for us'

UI 72, Dartmouth 65: 'A big challenge for us'

CHAMPAIGN — On Tuesday against Dartmouth, the Illini were good enough. The visitors from the Ivy League cut a 17-point Illini lead to five in the final minute before John Groce’s club finally put the finishing touches on a 72-65 win in front of 14,651 at State Farm Center.

On Saturday against 15th-ranked Oregon in Portland’s Moda Center, the Illini will have to be excellent from start to finish if they expect to escape the Pacific Northwest with a win against a Top 15 team for the second straight year.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Groce said of playing the Ducks. “We’ll have to play better than we did (Tuesday night). They’re really, really good.”

Illinois (9-1) was able to hang on against the Big Green, which got 17 points and nine rebounds apiece from Gabas Maldunas and Winnetka’s Connor Boehm, thanks in large part to the contribution it got from its bench consisting of five freshmen. Malcolm Hill displayed the scoring acumen that made him the all-time scoring leader at Belleville East, scoring a career-high 10 points Tuesday on 4-for-7 shooting. In the first nine games of his collegiate career, Hill made a total of six field goals.

“The sky’s the limit for him,” Groce said.

Freshmen Jaylon Tate (five points), Maverick Morgan (four rebounds) and Kendrick Nunn (two points, one rebound, one assist, one block) made contributions off the bench for the Illini on the stat sheet, and in his brief appearance, Austin Colbert altered an inbound pass.

“Thank goodness they were good (Tuesday night), otherwise we might not have gotten it done,” Groce said of his rookies.

If the Illini are to get it done Saturday against the 8-0 Ducks, the freshmen will have to continue to mature at the rapid rate they have the first month of the season. The veteran players, three of whom were a part of last season’s road win at No. 10 Gonzaga, will also have to continue their dazzling play. They will also have to prepare the fresh faces for the toughest challenge they will have seen to this point in their young careers.

“There’s a lot of maturity that’s involved with it,” said junior Nnanna Egwu, who scored 11 points and blocked two shots Tuesday against Dartmouth (3-4). “You’ve just got to understand that we have to prepare for this team just like any other team we have played. If we come out there and show any lack of effort and any lack of execution, we’re going to get beat.”

In addition to Hill and Egwu, three other Illini reached double figures against Dartmouth, led by Rayvonte Rice’s 13. Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey scored 11 apiece.

As the UI semester comes to a close today, the Illini will get a day off from hoops to rest their bodies and prepare for final exams. From there, it’s all about the Ducks.

“Any time you get to play a team as good as Oregon, as well-coached as Oregon on a semi-away court, it’s a great opportunity,” Groce said. “We’ll have to play better than we played (Tuesday night); our guys know that. They’re really, really good. It’ll be a big challenge for us, and our guys will look forward to the challenge.”