Lack of offense dooms Illinois men’s basketball against Nebraska


Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice looks for an opening in the paint during the game against Nebraska at Pinnacle Bank Arena. The Illini lost 67-58, making a winning record in the conference unattainable.

By Johnathan Hettinger

John Groce has been saying it for more than two weeks — Rayvonte Rice needs some help on offense.

Illinois’ top scorer got his numbers again Wednesday night, but the Illini fell to Nebraska 67-58 in Lincoln, Neb., as Rice’s 23 points, six rebounds and three steals weren’t enough.

Instead, Illinois returned to its offensive struggles of January, when it was the worst team in the nation in field goal percentage, as it made just 36.7 percent of its shots, 23.5 percent of its 3-pointers and 69.2 percent of its free throws, and no one besides Rice was able to score in double figures.

Prior to the game, teammates said seniors Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand, who were replaced in the starting lineup by freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill prior to the win against Penn State, were unfazed by being benched, but their play indicated otherwise. The pair combined for eight points while shooting 3-for-10 from the field.

Rice was able to get some assistance from Nunn and Hill in their second consecutive start. The pair had nine and eight points, respectively, but the other starters were unable to help out.

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Center Nnanna Egwu finished with four points and 12 rebounds, while point guard Tracy Abrams ended with three points and shot 0-for-4 from the field. Each of the juniors had four fouls.

Illinois also struggled on defense, allowing the Huskers to shoot 44.2 percent from the field, but the area where Nebraska was able to pull ahead was at the charity stripe, where they shot 24-for-27, good for 88.9 percent, on 20 Illinois fouls.

Nebraska led 31-30 after a back-and-forth first half, and Illinois started the second half on a 10-3 run to pull ahead 40-34, and that’s when the Illini’s struggles started. The Huskers went on a 10-0 run of their own and never trailed again. From there, they slowly pulled away from the Illini.

Rice led Illinois in the first half with 12 points and continued his scoring in the second half, but the Illini kept fouling Shavon Shields, and he made them pay. Shields made all 15 of his free throw attempts and finished with a career-high 33 points.

With the loss and Penn State’s win earlier Wednesday evening, Illinois fell into sole position of last place in the Big Ten at 3-9, guaranteeing that the Illini won’t finish with a winning record in conference play.

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