Illini basketball struggles in 80-71 win over Georgia Southern

Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice (24) drives to the basket during the game against Georgia Southern at State Farm Center, on Friday, Nov. 14, 2014. The Illini won 80-71.

By Sean Neumann

The opportunities kept presenting themselves, but Illinois couldn’t capitalize.

Illinois beat Georgia Southern 80-71 Friday night in the season opener at State Farm Center.

The Illini couldn’t pull away from the Eagles, letting three double-digit leads dwindle with 14 lead changes in the game.

“I thought that in the first half they were the aggressor,” Groce said of the Eagles. “They set the tone for the game.”

At first it seemed the Illini just needed its sixth man — the Orange Krush — who was participating in the third annual “Orange Hush,” with fans remaining silent until Illinois scored its first 10 points.

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The crowd erupted when senior Rayvonte Rice’s free throw put Illinois in the double digits. Then a transition steal led to a Leron Black alley-oop dunk that elevated the Illini fans to another level.

But the team couldn’t grasp the momentum after taking a 16-5 lead, allowing the Eagles back in the game — entering the locker room tied at 31-31.

The Illini struggled rebounding the ball Friday night, getting outmatched by the Eagles 41-34 on the boards. Senior center Nnanna Egwu had just one rebound.

“At some point it will cost us,” Groce said.

Illinois newcomers Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks helped lift the Illini past Georgia Southern, both reaching double-digits scoring.

“I was a little anxious and a little hyped up to play,” Cosby said, having not played since transferring to Illinois. “I settled down a little bit in the second half.”

Cosby’s 3-pointer with 1:49 remaining gave Illinois a late nine-point lead and the momentum boost it needed to finish off the Eagles. Rice added another three at the shot clock buzzer to gave the Illini another 10-point advantage with under a minute remaining.

Rice led the Illini with 24 points.

Eagles coach Mark Byington said he prepared for Rice’s offensive impact but still had trouble defending him.

“I was nervous about coming into the game, about how we were going to guard him,” Byington said. “After finishing the game, I still don’t know how to guard him.”

Groce is hoping the team’s second game this weekend — Sunday, hosting Coppin State — will allow the Illini to build off the positives and fix the team’s issues.

“A couple guys mentally need to understand that you’ve got to bring it everyday,” Groce said. “Everyday matters.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @neumannthehuman.