PORTLAND, Ore. — If you didn’t know any better, walking through the Moda Center concourse after the game, you’d have assumed Illinois beat No. 15 Oregon on Saturday night.
Of the 10,043 fans who attended the nonconference clash on the home court of the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers, about 2,000 were wearing orange. Following the Ducks’ 71-64 win, many of the orange-clad folks made their way to the exits singing their familiar “I-L-L, I-N-I” chant. It was loud and sustained. After a loss. A loss more than 2,000 miles away from the UI campus.
“Obviously, what a big-time environment, big-time college basketball game,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “Two good teams going at it. I thought our guys played very hard. I loved our attitude. I thought we really competed.”
The Illini (9-2) aren’t into moral victories. But after Saturday’s performance against the high-octane Ducks, it’s easy to see why the fans were feeling so good about where its team stands heading into final exams week.
The Ducks (9-0) entered the game averaging 91.4 points per game and the Illini held them 20 points below that figure. And when Nnanna Egwu drilled a three-pointer with 3:33 remaining, Illinois led 59-58 with an upset in the crosshairs.
“I told those guys, ‘We’re awful close. We’re right there against a really, really good ball club,’ ” Groce said. “We’ll take a look at it and see what we can learn from it. I learned a lot about my team tonight. I’m excited about where we’re going.”
Rayvonte Rice continued to be the bell cow for the Illini. The Champaign native tied Tracy Abrams for team-scoring honors, each scoring 16 points and grabbing four rebounds. Abrams also dished out five assists.
Rice became the first player in Illinois history to reach double figures in each of his first 11 games in an Illini uniform.
Jon Ekey added 10 points and eight rebounds while Joseph Bertrand scored eight points, grabbed three boards and had three steals.
For the fourth straight game, the Illini had trouble maintaining a late-game lead. It began in the loss at Georgia Tech when Illinois led by 12 with six minutes to go, only to see the Yellow Jackets come from behind for the win.
A 32-point lead whittled down to 19 in a win against Auburn and a 17-point cushion fell to as little as five in a win at home on Tuesday.
With nine minutes to go Saturday, Illinois led by seven, but the Ducks went on a 26-12 run to close out the Illini.
“We’ve just got to be mature and own up to it and just do what we can to lock down at that time of the game,” Abrams said. “We’ve just got to depend on each other and be there for each other.”
Some of it was on the Illini, and Groce said his team need to be better at imposing its will late in games. But he’s said he isn’t going to wear himself out trying to figure out Saturday’s issue.
“At the end of the day, I’m not going to dissect this one too hard. It’s pretty simple; they’re really good. They’re really, really good. Really good on offense,” Groce said. “And I thought their match-up zone was good tonight; I certainly don’t want to take anything away from their defense. They’re a good team. Great challenge, we need games like this. I thought it was great and showed me a lot of character with our ball club, which I’m excited to build upon.”
Five Oregon players scored in double figures, led by UNLV transfer Mike Moser (nine rebounds) and Joseph Young, who each scored 14 points.
Elgin Cook scored 12 points, while Johnathan Loyd, who scored the last six points of the game for the Ducks, added 11. Damyean Dotson scored 10 points.