Rice leads Illini to 80-63 win in season opener

The hometown kid stole the show in Illinois basketball’s season-opening victory Friday night at State Farm Center. Champaign native Rayvonte Rice led Illinois with 22 points in an 80-63 win over Alabama State in his Illini debut.

Rice shot 6-of-12 for the game on top of 9-of-10 from the free-throw line in his return to Champaign. He also surpassed the 1,000-point scoring mark for his career in his first game after sitting out last season following his transfer from Drake.

Despite his performance, however, head coach John Groce said he wanted to see more from the junior guard.

“There were a couple times tonight I didn’t think he was as aggressive as he needed to be,” Groce said. “Ray’s one of those guys who really wants to be unselfish if I don’t stay on him about being aggressive.”

In all, seven players made their debuts for Illinois. Transfers Rice and Jon Ekey (from Illinois State) along with five freshmen — Jaylon Tate, Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert — all saw time in their first game in orange and blue.

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    Groce said he would utilize all 11 eligible players on his roster this season, and he did so — all 11 scored in the game.

    “I thought everybody made at least a play or two or more,” Groce said. “It’s going to take that mindset of ‘by-committee’ for this team ultimately to reach its potential this year.”

    Junior center Nnanna Egwu quietly put together the second double-double of his career, scoring 10 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. His last double-double came in Illinois’ final game last season against Miami in the NCAA Tournament.

    Egwu admitted that he thinks about his numbers in the stat sheet, especially rebounds.

    “I try to make sure I get double digits every game,” Egwu said. “Different games you have different matchups and it’s going to be different every game. But the mind set is to try to get double figures in rebounds.”

    The Illini held a distinct height advantage over the Hornets. Alabama State’s tallest player to get into the game was 6-foot-7 forward Brandon Graham. Illinois exploited the Hornets’ disadvantage, overpowering Alabama State in the paint for a 52-28 rebound margin.

    In addition to Egwu’s 10 rebounds, Rice pulled down nine and senior guard Joseph Bertrand grabbed eight.

    In the stands the Orange Krush returned its “Orange Hush” for a second year, keeping quiet until the Illini scored their 10th point of the season. It is a tradition adapted from Groce’s alma mater Taylor University. Bertrand hit a mid-range jumper about four minutes into the game, after which the State Farm Center crowd erupted.

    Illinois let Alabama State hang around for much of the first half, struggling early against the Hornets’ 2-3 zone defense. The Illini surged late in the half after the Hornets pulled within six, at 31-25 with 4:12 remaining. Seven points from Rice and another bucket from Egwu extended the Illini lead to 40-26 at the break.

    Illinois would cruise to victory in the second half, leading by as much as 28. Jamel Waters led Alabama State with 27 points.

    “I just like the bounce that we had today,” Groce said. “I could tell, I could look in their eyes and tell, that they had it. We’ve got to have it every day.”

    Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.