Illinois basketball comes alive in senior night win


Illinois’ Nnanna Egwu (32) and Rayvonte Rice (24) react after a point during the game against Nebraska at State Farm Center, on Wednesday, March 5, 2015. The Illini won 69-57.

By Sean Neumann

With a minute and a half remaining in the game, Rayvonte Rice buried his fourth 3-pointer of the game. It was the 86th of his Illini career, and his last in front of a State Farm Center crowd.

The senior’s shot gave Illinois a comfortable nine-point lead that led to a 69-57 win Wednesday over Nebraska. Rice ended Illinois’ Senior Night with 23 points.

“Rayvonte’s two threes late were critical,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “They hit timely threes.”

Rice’s late bucket fell through the hoop just seconds before 11 p.m. and brought a tired crowd to its feet, where it remained until the final buzzer.

Illinois struggled to convert at the rim early on, shooting 18.2 percent midway through the first half. The team’s starters were 1-for-11 from the field, and half of Illinois’ points in the opening 10 minutes came at the free throw line (4-for-8).

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But a three-possession scoring stretch put Illinois ahead 15-12 around the eight-minute mark, converting off two Egwu blocks on the defensive end.

Illinois scored on four straight possessions during the 9-0 run, and by the end of that stretch, the team’s shooting percentage rose from 18.2 to 37.5 percent.

Freshman forward Leron Black helped carry the Illini into halftime with nine points and four rebounds in the first half. The freshman ended the game with 11 points and five rebounds. Groce said Black was “terrific” for the Illini off the bench.

“He made big plays,” Groce said. “He did a great job making plays on the glass for us and finishing plays.”

The Illini opened up the second half in similar fashion.

The team started 0-for-5 from the floor and allowed the Cornhuskers to go on an 11-0 run that stretched through the 15-minute mark.

“They threw a punch and we just answered,” Rice said.

But then the senior answered. Rice’s 3-pointer from the corner ended the Nebraska run and woke the Illini from another offensive slumber.

The game remained close until Nunn buried a three from the same spot to make it 49-44 for Illinois in the midst of a 9-2 run. Nebraska never closed the gap, with two turnovers in the closing minutes.

Illinois’ win puts it at 19-11 heading into its final regular season game against Purdue on Saturday, looking for an NCAA tournament birth. The team finished the season with a 14-2 record at home.

The home court advantage the Illini felt throughout the year was enough for Egwu to go through the crowd following Wednesday’s win to thank the fans.

“That was something I really wanted to do,” Egwu said. “It felt like something I needed to do.”

And if the Illini can end the year with a tournament bid, the fans would likely do the same.

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