Illinois struggles with Dartmouth late, wins 72-65

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill takes a three-point shot during the game against Darthmouth at State Farm Center on Tuesday. The Illini won 72-65.

By Johnathan Hettinger

Illinois’ final home tune-up was going just the way it was supposed to.

With 9:56 remaining in the second half Tuesday night, the Illini led the Big Green of Dartmouth 56-39, a game-high 17 points. Illinois head coach John Groce put in his reserves, and things started to head south.

Dartmouth started to chip away at the lead. With 7:11 remaining and the Illini leading 56-45, Groce saw momentum shifting and put his starters in. Dartmouth scored a quick bucket to cut the lead to 9. The starters stayed in for the majority of the rest of the game.

Despite the starters’ return, the Big Green were able to keep chipping away at the lead, making five of its last seven shots, though the 72-65 victory was never in doubt for the Illini.

Illinois showed three-freshmen and four-freshmen lineups all night, but Dartmouth forced Groce to end the game with the starters on the court. Still, Groce said the freshmen were key to the victory. Malcolm Hill played the most of the freshmen, scoring 10 points and grabbing four rebounds in 19 minutes, while Jaylon Tate added five points, a rebound, block, assist and steal. Maverick Morgan grabbed four rebounds.

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“Those guys were really ready to go,” Groce said. “If they had not been that ready to go tonight, I don’t know if we would have escaped.”

Junior Nnanna Egwu also saw the impact the freshmen had.

“Those guys are learning a lot. They’ve grown a lot. They’re going to continue to grow,” Egwu said. “The growth of these guys is really important for us to be successful as a team.”

Dartmouth head coach Paul Cormier told his team that if they didn’t rebound, they wouldn’t be playing. They took it to heart. The Big Green were able to close the gap and stay in the game thanks largely to rebounding. Dartmouth outrebounded Illinois 33-27, but its 11 offensive boards and 12 second-chance points were crucial to keeping the score close.  

The Illini have hung their hat on defense for most of the season so far. They came into the game ranked eighth in the nation with only 58.7 points per game allowed, and 16th in the country by holding teams to just 37.3 percent shooting from the field.

Dartmouth’s late success kept the score close.

“You’ve got to get some stops. That’s our calling card,” Groce said.

The Illini were solid across the board offensively. They shot 52 percent from the field and 38.9 percent behind the arc. Illinois made 13 of its 17 free throw attempts, good for 76.5 percent.

No player stood out on offense with five players in double figures and Tracy Abrams one point away. Rayvonte Rice had a solid game with 13 points and five rebounds on 6-of-9 shooting, while forwards Jon Ekey and Nnanna Egwu added 11 each, in addition to Hill’s 10.

“It’s the defensive end that I’m most worried about based on the deal that went down tonight,” Groce said.

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.