No. 17 OSU 62, UI 55: Notebook

No. 17 OSU 62, UI 55: Notebook

COLUMBUS, Ohio — After visiting with family following Illinois’ 62-55 loss at No. 17 Ohio State on Thursday at Value City Arena, Rayvonte Rice made his way to the team bus, shaking his head while saying, “That was a good game plan.”

Illinois’ top scorer at 17.4 points per game was referring to Ohio State’s defensive effort on him — he was held scoreless for the first time in his collegiate career.

In 64 career games at Drake, Rice never failed to score fewer than six points in a game. In his first 19 at Illinois, Rice had reached double figures in all but one.

“I thought (Aaron) Craft and (Shannon) Scott were great defensively,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “If you’d have said to me before the game that (Tracy) Abrams (nine points) and Rice were going to go 2 for 16, I probably wouldn’t have liked my chances.”

Rice, who has been dealing with a strained adductor since early in the Jan. 12 game at Northwestern, went 0 for 8 from the floor and turned the ball over three times against the Buckeyes.

His injury isn’t being used as a crutch for the recent struggles.

“He’ll be the first to tell you he doesn’t have any excuses. We’ve got to figure out a way to help him, and he’ll probably take some of that onus on himself,” Groce said. “He’s got to play a little bit better, and we’ve got to help him. It doesn’t have anything to do with that; it was more Ohio State’s defense.”

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Thursday’s game was a reunion of sorts for Rice and Ohio State guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. Rice, a Champaign native, and Smith, from far north suburban Zion-Benton, played AAU ball together before embarking on collegiate careers.

It was the first time they matched up on the court in college.

“It felt great. In eighth grade, this is what we dreamed of, talked about. ‘What if you end up at Illinois and I’m at Ohio State and we play each other?’ Tonight, it was living a dream,” Smith said. “In the dream, my team won, so I guess it kind of came true for me.”

After the game, Rice spent a few minutes with Lenzelle Smith Sr., catching up and posing for photos with the Ohio State guard’s dad.

“I’m glad we got to play against one another. It was great competition, and we’ll probably talk about this later down the road,” said Smith, who scored 16 points. “Right now, I’m focused on this team, and I’m glad we got the win.”

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In the nine games since he scored 11 points in a win against Dartmouth on Dec. 10, Nnanna Egwu had failed to score in double figures, including the two games in which he went scoreless leading up to Thursday’s game.

This one didn’t get off to a promising start as the junior big man went to the bench less than two minutes in after picking up an early foul.

But Egwu rebounded, literally and figuratively, scoring 10 points to go along with nine boards and two blocks for the Illini.

“It was nice,” said Egwu, who had become a lightning rod of criticism for his lack of scoring in recent games.

He wasn’t the only one. Seniors Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey had folks calling for more playing time for the freshman reserves on the Illini roster, but each quieted that talk for now with their play Thursday.

Bertrand scored a game-high 19 points, and Ekey added 11.

“We were right there, in large part, because Bertrand and Egwu and Ekey really did some nice things offensively,” Groce said. “It’s good to see Joe-Joe and Nnanna make a couple because they hadn’t done that lately. I was really proud of Nnanna’s effort on the backboard. I had been on him about rebounding. He gets nine rebounds in 33 minutes.”

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Early in the nonconference season, freshman Jaylon Tate had many suggesting he might take the reins as the starting point guard at some point during the season. Tate, the Simeon product, led the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio for a long stretch.

But since Big Ten play started, he’s struggled to find his groove. Thursday, he got back on track, leading Illinois’ late first-half charge with a pair of fancy assists leading to dunks by Ekey and Egwu. It was the best Groce had seen his youngster play during the conference season.

“I thought the first half he was good. It was good to see him get in a groove,” Groce said of Tate, who finished with four assists and three turnovers. “Then he had a couple live-ball turnovers in the second half. We’ll look to clean those up. It wasn’t necessarily one guy that had all those turnovers, it was a collection of our team that had them. You give them those live-ball turnovers and that’s a recipe for disaster against them.”

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Like Illinois, Ohio State entered the game riding a four-game losing streak. The Buckeyes started the season 15-0 and reached No. 3 in The Associated Press poll before dropping games to Michigan State, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska.

“We tried to do our best to put the losing streak behind us,” Craft said. “This game wasn’t about that. It was about coming out and trying to find a way to be better than Illinois. That was our only goal going into this game.”

A fifth straight loss would have been the first five-game skid under Matta and the first for the program since 1997.

“Everybody was connected tonight. There was a lot of togetherness tonight,” LaQuinton Ross said. “You see guys jumping up and down, our bench jumping up and down. It was a group effort tonight. Everybody did what they had to do and pitch in.”

Said Smith: “I don’t think anyone here signed up to lose games. Guys are feeling a little bit better now. We know we haven’t done what we wanted to do, but it’s definitely a step closer. It feels good.”

Marcus Jackson

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