Loren Tate: Illini refuse to die
BOSTON — John Groce’s Illini have been buried so many times that the grave diggers are running out of shovels.
On Wednesday night in Boston, the eulogies were chosen and a long basketball season was being laid to rest ... except that Rayvonte Rice wouldn’t die. Pulling off another of his game-turning steals, something his instincts have allowed since his Centennial days, the rugged junior lifted the Illini on his shoulders, scored 12 points in the last 6:30 and pulled certain defeat out of the fire, 66-62.
Rice’s bullying and banging created 28 points against undersized Boston University, and set up a date against Clemson (10 a.m. Sunday) to keep alive the goal of reaching Madison Square Garden in the NIT Final Four.
The quick-passing, long-shooting Patriot League champs saw victory slip through their fingers as they failed to finish 35 minutes of excellent play. It won’t be noticed much in Boston, only 1,317 attending (a majority in orange) while Miami’s NBA champions were playing the Celtics in the city.
What the small assemblage witnessed was an erratic UI effort, and one that seemed doomed to failure. Riding two prolific point guards, Mo Watson (12 assists) and D.J. Irving (17 points), the Terriers spurted ahead 30-13 and repelled UI rallies to carry a 55-45 lead into the last eight minutes. The hosts hit 10 of 20 treys at one point, but only one of the last five.
There were stretches when the Terriers’ quick passes and three-point accuracy left UI defenders a step slow. The Illini frequently got sucked in to protect penetration and couldn’t get back to the arc. But as happened during the Illini’s recent surge — they’ve won six of eight road games — stellar late-game defense allowed Rice the opportunity to pull it out as the Terriers seemingly tightened and produced just one field goal in the last 4:45, and none in the final 4:10.
Thus did Illinois overcome the sub-par play of juniors Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams, both standouts in the recent Big Ten tournament. But Egwu, after missing a free throw at :27, put it out of reach with two charities at :10.
“We were able to steal one,” Groce said. “Rice was a monster for us. He has great hands and did an exceptional job finishing around the rim. We kept calling timeout and drawing up plays for him, particularly when he was defended by a smaller guard.”
Groce said before and after that the Terriers reminded him of Michigan, the way they passed and spread the ball around.
“Seniors die hard,” Groce said, “and I went with Jon (Ekey) and Joe (Bertrand) late. They made some big plays for us. I have a lot of respect for those two.”
Groce said his team “played slow and not very smart at times,” particularly when Boston U. swung into a zone, but “chipped away and ratcheted it up down the stretch.”
If Terrier shooters froze toward the end, that would be a natural reaction in a game in which they played so well, repulsed Illini rallies and seemed to have it in their pocket. But Illinois was the aggressor, and late-game showdowns favor the aggressors.
Illinois outscored the Terriers 12-1 in the last four minutes, the rally ignited when Rice rebounded and fed Abrams for his only basket, and then scored the next seven points himself.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.