Illinois escape against Dartmouth behind strong play from the freshmen

Illinois took care of business on Tuesday.

To step up the way Illinois did in a 72-65 win against Dartmouth on Tuesday is easier said than done. People always talk about those classic “trap” games, and Dartmouth could’ve been just that. It wasn’t pretty, but the Illini are sitting at 9-1 before heading to Portland, Ore., to face the No. 15 Ducks on Saturday.

Illinois didn’t overlook Dartmouth ahead of their big matchup, even if the score made the game seem closer than it really was. Don’t get me wrong, Illinois struggled down the stretch, letting Dartmouth get within five points in the last minute, but the game was never in doubt. A barrage of late 3-pointers by the Big Green put a scare in the Illini faithful, but Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey responded with dagger 3-pointers of their own.

Rice led Illinois in scoring once again, this time with 13 points, extending his double-digit streak to 10 games, but numerous other players were needed to pull out the win. The freshmen stepped up.

The freshmen as a whole made their biggest impact of the season. The newcomers have been playing on and off all season long, but this was the first time head coach John Groce extensively used the freshmen. At least three freshmen were on the floor for the majority of the second half, and at one point there was a unique lineup of Jaylon Tate, Kendrick Nunn, Rice, Malcolm Hill and Maverick Morgan. Groce just had to have them on the floor with the way they were playing on Tuesday.

Hill played well enough to be put on the postgame podium. The forward showed flashes of being a potential primary scorer in future years for the Illini. Hill finished with a versatile line of 10 points, four rebounds, two assists and two 3-pointers in only 19 minutes. Hill has the ability to bang down low when needed or drift to the perimeter where he has an improving stroke. He also had a slick spin move leading to an assist for a Nnanna Egwu and-one late in the first half. Hill has a feel for the game that’s rare for a freshman to have.

Tate and Nunn provided a nice change of pace from Tracy Abrams and Rice in the backcourt. Tate finished with 5 points to go along with an assist, a steal and a block. Nunn only scored two points, but he had a perfect lob to Joseph Bertrand on the break as well as an emphatic block late in the second half. Morgan didn’t score in this game, but his brick-wall screens and rebounding instincts were on full display.

The Illini have won nine of their first 10 games but could easily be undefeated if not for the meltdown at Georgia Tech. That’s not too shabby for a team that entered the season with modest expectations. Illinois has avoided any major upsets in the early going and has kept its NCAA resume clean for the time being. Illinois now enters a brutal stretch of the season where they’ll face Oregon on the road, before finals week no less, and then head to St. Louis to face No. 24 ranked Missouri the following week.

Groce even said after the game, “we’re gonna have to play better than we did tonight.” With Oregon ranking third in the country in points per game, that may be an understatement.

Michael is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @The_MDubb.