Illinois overcomes slow start to get the best of Baylor

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llinois basketball headed to the Las Vegas Invitational knowing it would receive its first true test of the young season. 

That test didn’t come Thanksgiving Day, as the Illini easily dispatched Indiana State 88-62 in the first round of the tournament.

It came on Friday, in the form of the previously undefeated Baylor Bears. The Bears entered Friday’s matchup with the Illini at 5-0, following a blowout win over Memphis late Thursday.

In the end, Illinois overcame a cold shooting night and an athletic Baylor squad to win 62-54 and remain undefeated at 6-0. The win clinched the tournament championship in front of a large pro-Illini crowd in Vegas. 

Thursday’s Indiana State win pushed Illinois to 5-0, marking five straight games for the Illini against clearly inferior opponents. Credit them for taking care of business, and the quality of Illini opponents essentially improved incrementally leading into the Baylor matchup. There’s no question the Bears were the first big step up in competition for Illinois.

Baylor proved it was the best team Illinois has played so far on Friday night, and came out swinging in the championship game. 

The Bears jumped to a quick 7-0 lead, and Illinois struggled mightily from the field in the first half. Once again, Rayvonte Rice’s efforts kept the Illini afloat, but Baylor’s zone defense caused major issues for Illinois’ high powered offense.

Groce knew Baylor would play zone for most (ended up being the entirety) of the game, but Illinois couldn’t capitalize off open looks. Malcolm “zone-buster” Hill picked up two early fouls, further hindering the Illini’s offensive efforts.

The Bears were big, strong and athletic, and predictably killed the Illini on the boards, finishing with a 47-33 rebounding advantage. Rico Gathers finished with 15 rebounds on his own. They were an above average defensive team and dragged Illinois into a slow paced slug fest with their stifling length.

Although Baylor took a 25-21 lead into half, they did not play especially well in the process, committing 10 turnovers in the first 20 minutes. It was clear Illinois was the deeper and more talented team, and you just got the feeling going into half that the shots would start falling and they would grab the lead and not look back. 

That’s how the narrative played out. Illinois opened the second half with eight straight points and withstood several Baylor runs to shut the door on the Bears behind Hill and Rice, who had 17 points each.

As has been the theme this year for the Illini, contributions came from all corners of the floor in their winning effort. Nnanna Egwu was a stud defensively (again). Leron Black provided energy and six points off the bench. Ahmad Starks hit a pair of big threes and showed off his underrated passing ability with a thunderous alley-oop to Rice and clutch dishes in the lane. Kendrick Nunn again was the perfect X factor, as the sixth man played aggressive defense and finished with seven crucial points.

And don’t forget Austin Colbert, who made his first appearance off the bench late in the second half and helped stop Baylor’s final push. The Bears were on a 7-0 run when Colbert snagged an offensive rebound and converted a put back bucket to give the Illini a five point lead.

When the threes aren’t raining down for the Illini — and they certainly weren’t Friday — that’s how they’ll win games: Toughness, grit and everyone chipping in.

But make no mistake, this game belonged to Rice and Hill once again. Thursday’s Indiana State game saw the duo combine for 38 points and 15 rebounds, and the Baylor contest saw more of the same. Rice and Hill combined for 34, including a late 3 pointer and then a driving, old fashioned left handed 3 point play from Hill to help seal the game.

So what does this victory mean? For starters, it means Illinois passed its first big test. Baylor was a solid team that has potential to make noise in the Big 12 this year and will likely be a fringe NCAA tournament team. Yes, they were missing starting point guard Kenny Cherry due to a foot injury. But if a Baylor fan tries to play the Cherry injury card, you can whip out a Tracy Abrams injury card of your own.

The win also means the Illini had enough to maneuver around a bad matchup on paper. Baylor’s strengths — zone defense and rebounding — have proven to be two of Illinois’ weaknesses so far. It’s encouraging that the Illini were able to overcome a rough 3 point (6-for-23) and free throw (10-for-18) shooting night to stay undefeated. 

However, Groce and his players can only gaze at the hardware they’re bringing home from Vegas for so long. A Tuesday matchup with No. 17 Miami in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge awaits.

It will be another uptick in competition for the Illini, and another chance to prove to the country that they’re for real. 

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @aroux94.