Rice, Illini close out home season in style

Illinois’ Nnanna Egwu (32) rises for a two-handed dunk during the game against Nebraska at State Farm Center, on Wednesday, March 5, 2015. The Illini won 69-57.

You could see it coming. 

When Rayvonte Rice took the ball at the top of the key with 1:40 remaining in Illinois’ 69-57 defeat of Nebraska, it was almost as if what happened next was predetermined. 

Rice, an Illini senior playing his last home game in front of the State Farm Center crowd, already had 18 points when he sized up his defender at the top of the arc. I had flashbacks to the Braggin’ Rights game, when he hit a game-winning buzzer beater from exactly the same spot. 

Illinois was leading 56-50 when Rice crossed over, rose up and dumped the final pile of soil on the Huskers’ grave as he buried his fourth 3-pointer of the game. It was a cliché senior moment, one made even more significant since Rice is originally from Champaign. These were his fans who jumped out of their seats, giving him one final ovation in his town. He finished with 23 points in his home finale. 

On Senior Night, Nnanna Egwu had a mini senior moment of his own, when the fourth-year center slammed home an exclamation point dunk to close the Illini’s 14th home win of the season in style. 

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    “I thought our seniors had that look in their eye where they weren’t gonna let us lose,” Illinois head coach John Groce said after the game.

    The very end of the game played out like a blowout, but most of the game was anything but.

    Nebraska (13-16, 5-12 Big Ten) jumped on the Illini (19-11, 9-8) at the start of both halves, and used a 13-point run to build a five-point second-half lead. The two teams went back and forth for much of the second half, with usual suspects Terran Petteway (13 points) and Shavon Shields (14 points) leading Tim Miles’ Husker squad. 

    Nebraska’s physical defensive presence was a polar opposite from Northwestern, whose soft zone caused little trouble in the Illini’s last game. The Huskers bothered Illinois on the perimeter, forcing the Illini to kick their intensity up a notch. Groce looked to the bench and called on freshman Leron Black to match the physicality.

    Black, who has had an enigmatic freshman year at times, rose to the occasion. He scored 11 points, and it seemed like each of them came when the Illini were begging for a bucket. Black snatched five boards as well to round out what Groce called a “terrific” performance.

    There was a buzz in the building Wednesday, especially considering the 9 p.m. start time. Several thousand extra students in the upper levels helped keep the older crowd awake, and the showing capped off a nice home season from the fan perspective.

    I’ve been going to Illini games for a long time, and this is the first time since the tail end of Illinois’ mid-2000s run of success that State Farm Center has been consistently loud through the end of the season. 

    While this particular win was a satisfying way to close out a 14-2 home season, it means little in regards to Illinois’ NCAA tournament chances. A win over a sorry Nebraska team does nothing but keep the Illini firmly on the bubble — the real showdown comes Saturday. 

    Purdue and Illinois are in a similar gray area when it comes to tourney dreams, and Saturday could represent a virtual NCAA tournament play-in game at the Boilermakers’ Mackey Arena. 

    With so much on the line, Groce will be searching for that look in his seniors’ eyes once again. 

    Alex is a junior in AHS.

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