UI 60, Nebraska 49: 'Extraordinary effort plays'
CHAMPAIGN — In a Big Ten season that has seen more lows than highs, Illinois was due to get a couple of favorable bounces. In Wednesday’s 60-49 win against Nebraska at State Farm Center, the basketball gods were on the side of the Illini.
Midway through the second half, Big Ten Freshman of the Week Kendrick Nunn lined up a three-pointer and shot it 3 feet too long. No worries, though. It banked off the glass and through the net.
Jon Ekey, who has seemingly missed twice as many tip dunks this season than he’s made, somehow got an off-balance, acrobatic tip to go in with a pair of Nebraska defenders draped all over him. The shot gave Illinois a 50-37 lead and forced the crowd of no more than 12,000 inside the 16,618-seat arena to jump to its feet and roar in approval.
“Sometimes, when you give that type of effort and you have abnormal focus and concentration and you’re playing the right way for the right reasons with the right mind-set, sometimes the basketball gods will let you bank in a three or save a ball,” Illinois coach John Groce said.
Make no mistake about it, though, the Illini (16-12, 5-10 Big Ten) made their own breaks, too, out-hustling Nebraska to 50-50 balls, the highlight being Rayvonte Rice’s tap to Ekey (eight points, six rebounds), who ended up in the Orange Krush to save an Illinois possession.
“Credit Illinois. They won this game with hustle plays,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “Forty of their 60 points were off turnovers (24) and second-chance points (16).”
“I thought our extraordinary effort plays were exceptional,” Groce said after his team’s first home win since Jan. 4.
After losing eight straight, the Illini have won back-to-back games for the first time since the first two of the Big Ten season and dealt a serious blow to the NCAA tournament hopes of Nebraska (16-11, 8-7), which entered the game having won five straight and seven of eight.
Nunn, who was honored by the conference earlier this week after a 19-point effort at Minnesota, led the way with 13 points.
“Nunn is an emerging star,” Miles said.
Malcolm Hill (five rebounds) and Rice (nine boards) each scored 10 points for the Illini, who limited Nebraska’s Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Terran Petteway to 13 points on 18 shots and held its third straight opponent under 50 points.