Rice emerges as go-to player for the Illini in close victories

Whew, that was close.

Illinois could easily be sitting at 5-2 right now after two barn burners over the break. After trailing by 10 at halftime against UNLV on Tuesday and by eight at the break against IPFW on Friday, Illinois were well on their way to suffering their first defeats of the season. Illinois can thank Rayvonte Rice for leaving Turkey break with a 7-0 record after winning by a combined four points in both of the contests.

Rice is the go-to player Illinois has been looking for to fill Brandon Paul’s role. Rice was Paul-esque in his 25-point 10-rebound outburst against UNLV on Tuesday. The 6-foot-4 guard was a nightmare for the Running Rebels to contain.

When Rice wasn’t driving and finishing at the rim against UNLV, he was nailing outside shots. Yes, Rice has actually discovered his shooting stroke, connecting on three of his six 3-point attempts on Tuesday when he made only five 3-pointers combined in his previous five games.

Illinois head coach John Groce and his players have downplayed the importance of having a go-to player, but certain situations necessitate a primary scorer. When the game’s within one score with under a minute left, a situation the Illini experienced twice over the break, go-to players become pivotal. Rice didn’t disappoint.

Rice broke the hearts of UNLV with a tough lay-up off a curl play to give Illinois a 61-59 lead with 28 seconds remaining on Tuesday. UNLV’s outstanding shot blocker Khem Birch nearly deflected Rice’s shot, but the Drake transfer was able to put in the game winning score.

Rice’s heroics were on display once again as IPFW was looking to tie or take the lead with 25 seconds left on Friday. Rice ripped the ball away from IPFW guard Pierre Bland and iced the game with two free throw makes. Go-to players live for situations like these.

Rice has helped set the tone at the defensive end for the Illini. Rice has averaged 8.0 rebounds and 3.0 steals in the past two games, contributing to an Illinois defense that held both UNLV and IPFW to 20-point second halves. Nnanna Egwu has been a force in the paint with his 2.57 blocks per game, but Rice has been just as important manning the perimeter.

Other players have contributed to this 7-0 start. Jon Ekey has been an X-factor of sorts for Illinois as he crashes the boards with regularity and hits timely 3-pointers. Joseph Bertrand has been efficient and reliable as a senior leader of this team. Tracy Abrams has shown some clutch chops of his own, as he scored four consecutive points for the Illini late in Friday’s win, but he’s been very inefficient so far. The freshmen, namely Jaylon Tate, have been thrown into the fire and played well in spurts. Still, none of these players have had the impact of Rice.

Even aside from his late game heroics, Rice leads the team, averaging 17.1 points per game. Bertrand is a distant second in scoring on Illinois, averaging 11.7 points per game. Rice is also averaging 6.3 rebounds per game despite being only 6-foot-4. To put it simply, Rice is the best player on this team at any time in the game.

With an inconsistent offense that is struggling to shoot the ball, Illinois isn’t done with close games. The first two close calls of the season were encouraging for the Illini. Illinois stayed focus when faced with adversity, defended well down the stretch and escaped with two victories. Illinois also found its go-to player in the process.

As John Groce said on Wednesday in regards to Rice’s shot against UNLV, “Big-time players make big-time plays.”

There are many more “big-time plays” to come from Rice this season.

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