Rice turns clock back to dominate nonconference opponent


Rayvonte Rice was happy to finally face a nonconference team again.

Rice’s 28 points, with 20 coming in the second half, carried Illinois to a 66-62 victory over Boston in the first round of the NIT on Wednesday.

Rice was really never able to adjust to the grind of the Big Ten during his first season in the conference. The Drake transfer scored 20 or more points four times in 20 Big Ten games after pulling off the feat five times in 13 nonconference matchups. Rice had to be licking his chops heading into the matchup against a Boston team from the Patriot League. He didn’t disappoint.

Illinois’ season would be over if it wasn’t for Rice’s performance Wednesday night. The Illini were dominated for much of the first half, trailing 30-13 at one point amid a rainstorm of Boston 3-pointers. Rice mounted an Illinois comeback with his aggressiveness.

The Illini looked like deer in headlights as they tried to figure out Boston’s 2-3 zone defense. Illinois was slow to set up its offense, lacked ball movement and settled for poor looks throughout the first half. Rice didn’t fall into the trap of the zone defense. The junior attacked the heart of Boston’s defense and drove at will. Boston struggled to keep Rice out of the paint and was never able to slow him down.

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Rice flat out dominated in the second half. Rice scored 20 points on 7-for-8 shooting in the second half and hit clutch shot after clutch shot. Rice went on a personal 7-0 run down the stretch, capped off by his layup that put Illinois up for good at 64-61. Rice’s only misses of the night were 3-pointers, demonstrating how difficult he was to keep out of the paint. He also led Illinois with eight rebounds, rounding out one of the better performances by an Illini this season.

Illinois has a tendency to play to the level of their opponents, whether the opponent is good or bad. Less than a week after coming a layup short of upsetting No. 8 Michigan, Illinois nearly fell to a mid-major Boston squad.

The 3-point shot gave Boston a fighter’s chance in this game. The Terriers made 11 3-pointers at a 44 percent clip after making just one 3-pointer on 17 attempts against American in the Patriot League Championship. Seven first-half 3-pointers helped give Boston a nine-point lead at halftime. But as the old adage goes, you live by the three, and you die by the three. Boston made just four 3-pointers in a second half where it was outscored 42-29. Illinois finally started playing like the favorite.

It was almost as if Illinois turned back the clock against Boston. Rice finally played like he did earlier in the season and John Groce’s Opening Day starting lineup proved to be the most effective rotation against Boston. The senior duo of Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey gave Groce solid minutes off the bench. The two combined for 15 points on 4-for-6 shooting from the behind the arc and played pivotal roles in helping the Illini climb back into the game.

Illinois’ road to an NIT Championship isn’t going to get any easier. The Illini will now have to travel to South Carolina to face a pesky Clemson squad. The Tigers beat Georgia State on Tuesday and feature one of the toughest defenses in the country. The Illini are suddenly the highest seed remaining in their region after No. 1-seeded St. John’s fell to eighth-seeded Robert Morris on Tuesday.

If the Illini, and namely Rice, continue to play the way they did in the second half against Boston, a date at Madison Square Garden may be in their future.

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