UI 60, Penn State 55: Notebook
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Entering Sunday’s game, Austin Colbert, the 6-foot-9 freshman forward, had played a total of 17 minutes in Big Ten play and had appeared in just one of the previous seven games.
With Nnanna Egwu in foul trouble, Colbert was called on early in the first half and provided productive minutes. As a result, he played 11 minutes, scoring four points in Illinois’ 60-55 victory against Penn State.
“I knew I was going to play him a little bit. Did I know we were going to play him double-digit minutes? Honestly, I didn’t,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “I think that was a lot to do with the foul trouble. He earned his minutes. He made some plays. I thought, in a good way. It’s as physical as he’s been at both ends of the floor. I thought he had a really good disposition.”
All 10 eligible scholarship players saw at least 10 minutes of action Sunday, including freshman big man Maverick Morgan, who had four points and four rebounds.
“Austin and Maverick. This is rare where everybody plays double-digit minutes, and we needed everybody to win this game,” said freshman Malcolm Hill, who scored a career-high 11 points. “Maverick got a couple offensive rebounds, Austin got the and-1. They did a lot of big things off the bench.”
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For just the third time this season, Illinois’ leading scorer, Rayvonte Rice, failed to reach double figures in the scoring column. The 6-foot-4 guard from Champaign finished with nine points on 2-of-8 shooting.
“I thought when he touched the ball, it felt like the whole arena was guarding him,” Groce said. “He handled it very maturely. I thought he made some great passes. He had one (shot) that I can think of in my mind that he forced, but other than that he just kind of played and stayed with it and was pretty mentally tough.”
Rice, who missed four free throws, finished with just one assist, though Groce applauded his unselfishness.
“I give Ray a lot of credit. He was doubled on pick and rolls, guys were sitting on him and he just kind of played,” Groce said. “I thought that was a very mature response by him and other guys benefited from that. Other guys got shots from that.”
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In addition to scoring a career-high 19 points in his first start, freshman Kendrick Nunn earlier this week was named UI Scholar-Athlete of the Week.
Nunn, who carries a 3.30 grade-point average, is the first Illinois basketball player to earn the honor since D.J. Richardson in 2010.
“Those things aren’t coincidence. There’s a translation and correlation in taking care of your business and the results you get on the court,” Groce said.
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For the first time this season, Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand, Illinois’ fifth-year seniors, came off the bench. Ekey didn’t appear bothered with the new role, scoring nine points with three boards and two steals in the win.
Bertrand, who averages 11 points per game, went scoreless for the first time this season, missing all four shots in a season-low 13 minutes.
“I was also really impressed with the maturity level of our veterans. I made the decision to start two freshmen and bring two guys off the bench, one of which is a double-figure scorer (Bertrand) that shoots over 50 percent from the field and is our highest field-goal shooter,” Groce said. “The other is a guy who leads our team in defensive rebounds per minute played, Matto points and is our best three-point shooter statistically. They had to make some sacrifices. We talked about that the last couple days. We thought it might be in the best interest for us moving forward to do that.”
When the news was delivered to the team a couple of days before the game, the Illinois veterans were all on board with the change.
“The seniors did a great job. They weren’t down about it,” Hill said. “They were supportive and kept patting our backs.”
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The difference in the game for the Illini came in the last 9 minutes, 44 seconds when they held the Nittany Lions to just one field goal, a D.J. Newbill runner with 14 seconds left. Newbill made a jumper with 9:44 remaining to give Penn State a 52-49 lead. From that point forward, Illinois outscored the Lions 11-3.
“I thought when we needed our defense the most, we were able to affect them at a certain level,” Groce said. “I know sometimes you miss shots, and they certainly did that. I thought that overall we were able to impose our will defensively the last 9:44. I thought defensively, the last 9:44, we were excellent. I thought the bulk of the game, we defended well.”