Layup in final seconds gives Illini 60-58 win


Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (21) drives into the paint before making the game-winning basket during the game against Penn State at State Farm Center on Jan. 31, 2015. The Illini won 60-58.

By Sean Neumann

Malcolm Hill turned off a double team with just seconds remaining and drove to the basket. The baby-face sophomore had already given his Illini team all he could: 25 points, four rebounds, 37 minutes on the floor. But like a veteran, he drove to the rim one last time.
The right-handed sophomore went in for a left-handed layup while double-teamed. Another Penn State defender slid in to contest the shot. But Hill let the ball slide from his hand and gently bounce off the glass. In the most dramatic moment, it rolled around the rim and fell through the net. 
The most quiet of shots gave Illinois (14-8, 4-5 Big Ten) a hectic 60-58 win over Penn State (14-9, 2-8).
The dramatic win came just hours after head coach John Groce announced Illini guards Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby ware suspended indefinitely for violating team rules.
Groce said both suspended guards were available to play Saturday if not for the disciplinary actions, having both been expected to return from injuries.
“I only have one rule in our program and that’s: Don’t do anything to embarrass the University of Illinois, the men’s basketball program, yourself or your family,” Groce said. “We have standards, and I expect those standards to be adhered to. I make that very, very clear.”
Rice led the team in scoring (17.2 points per game), rebounding (6.9 rebounds per game) and steals (1.8 steals per game) before suffering a broken left hand in early January. Cosby had started 13 games before tearing the retina in his left eye against Indiana. He was fourth on the Illini with 7.8 points per game.
“When Ray went down, it upset us,” Hill said. “It hit us and took us about 10 minutes to gather ourselves. When he comes back, it’s going to help us a lot.”
In the wake of the suspensions, Hill’s bucket to cap off a 27-point performance came when Illinois needed it most.
“I was just thinking, ‘Finish at the rim as strong as I can,’” Hill said. “I just tried to brush him off my body and put it in the basket.”
Saturday’s game was tight throughout, with the largest lead just an eight-point Illini advantage early in the first half.
Midway through the first, Illinois was shooting 50 percent from the field and 75 percent from 3-point range. But the Illini cooled off after the first 10 minutes, ending the half shooting 36 percent from the field.
In Rice’s absence, Illinois has relied on Hill, who now leads the team in scoring (321 points) and rebounds (118) in 22 games. He’s averaging 16.9 points per game since conference play started.
“Sometimes the best teacher is experience,” Groce said. “He’s found a way to grow and get better from that.”
Hill has relied on sophomore counterpart Kendrick Nunn since Rice was sidelined, but not even Nunn didn’t offer much of a spark Saturday.
Nunn was 2-for-14 from the field in 34 minutes on the floor. Hill was 10-for-15, while the rest of the Illini were 10-for-38.
Hill reached double-digits just 15 minutes into the game.
“I’m really impressed with his game,” Penn State coach Pat Chambers said. “He’s really efficient and lets the play come to him. He’s going to be a big time player.” 
Starting center Nnanna Egwu struggled alongside starting forward Leron Black. The pair combined for four points and had five turnovers. Backup centers Morgan and Colbert combined for eight points, four rebounds and no turnovers. 
Morgan helped lift Illinois late with a minute and a half stretch midway through the second half when he buried a jump shot, hit a pair of free throws, and recorded a block. The sophomore center tipped a missed fast-break layup by Illini guard Jaylon Tate that was followed up in the air by an Austin Colbert dunk, bringing the Illini crowd to its feet and giving Illinois a 54-50 lead.
But it was Hill’s play at the end that kept the Illini fans on their feet and Illinois’ tournament hopes alive. 
Modest after the game, Hill didn’t want credit for finishing a tough basket. He wanted the improbable play to be his expectation on the floor.
“We shouldn’t be credited with playing hard,” Hill said. “We should be known for it to begin with.”
Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @Neumannthehuman.