Illinois got a huge performance from Rayvonte Rice as they overcame a 17 point first half deficit to win at Boston 66-62 in the first round of the NIT. Rice finished with 28 points and 8 rebounds, while freshman Malcolm Hill added 10 points and 8 boards for Illinois (20-14). Boston got 17 points from DJ Irving and 12 assists from Maurice Watson, as the Terriers finished their season at 24-11.
Trailing 30-13, the Illini looked sloppy and were settling for jumpers. After a timeout, John Groce's troops began attacking on both ends of the floor, led by Rice, who scored had just two points with 3:15 remaining in the first half before turning it up a notch. Rice scored six points to cut the halftime lead to 33-24 and he continued his domination in the second half.
Illinois advance to play at Clemson Sunday morning at 11AM EST, 10AM CST in the round of 16.
Here's a look back at the 20th win for the Illini
When Illinois sees teams without shot blockers inside, it's Ray Rice to the hole time. His strength and ability to turn the corner make Rice tough check against teams that don't have length. Although he has struggled at times in the Big Ten, he has his way against teams like Boston. Rice went into attack mode late in the first half and finished with 28 points on 11-14 shooting.
Outside of solid supporting performances from Malcolm Hill and Joseph Bertrand, Rice was the only Illini that looked good on offense and the only player that attacked the basket.
The Illinois defense wasn't awful, but it was fairly porous in the first half, allowing dribble penetration, over helping and losing shooters. You can say that the Terriers just had a good first half, but much of it was Illinois missing assignments. John Groce used the word 'stupid' to describe it in the postgame. When a team shoots 33% on two pointers (4-12), yet you allow them to get off 15 three pointers and hit 7 of them, that isn't good.
Illinois limited their attempts in the second half; even though BU shot it better from two and hit 40% from three, they scored fewer points. It helps when players execute the game plan and understand how a team like Boston can beat you.
Smaller can work
Sometimes, coaches struggle to think outside the box. They have a plan and pattern and they 'do what they do'. Sometimes it's best to analyze what's going on and deviate from a plan when things aren't going well.
This was one of the worst games of the season for Nnanna Egwu, on both ends of the floor. Although he was a presence inside, he wasn't the defensive force he has been of late and he really struggled on offense. It isn't just the missed shots, but the fact that the opponent didn't guard him and clogged the lane much more effectively because of it.
For one 2-minute stretch in the second half, Illinois went small and outscored Boston 6-0. Not a huge number, but it showed that they can play smaller and space the floor against a team that lacked any sort of inside presence. Hill and Jon Ekey can both space the floor and Hill provides another creator.
Defensively, you want Egwu on the floor at the end of the game, but why not go offense for defense at times, even if it means you are smaller.
* Boston point guard Maurice Watson showed what a diminutive point guard with great quickness and good vision can do. He posted 12 assists and got into the lane at will. However, you also saw his limitations, as he shot 3-12 and struggled to finish in the paint at times. Also, eight of his assists came on kick outs to three point shooters.
* Illinois scored 1.10 PPP and shot 15-29 from two point range, including Rice's 9-9 performance. Illinois had 12 turnovers for the game, but the key was that they only had 4 in the second half as they mounted their comeback. Illinois shot 8-17 on 3's, for 47%, which is very important for this team. Defensively, Boston scored 1.03 PPP, which is not bad considering their outside shooting. Illinois really limited their second chance points. One other thing that hurt Illinois was the 21 points off of turnovers for the Terriers.
* Kendrick Nunn had one of his worst games; the freshman struggled in this one. Senior Joseph Bertrand picked up the slack, however, scoring nine points off the bench and hitting a pair of big three point shots to stop Boston runs. Nunn has been very consistent since entering the starting lineup, so he was due to struggle once. Expect a big bounce-back game for Nunn against Clemson, a game he will need to play well in.
* The power forward position for Illinois looked like this. 43 minutes, 16 points, 11 rebounds, 5-10 shooting. Ekey and Hill are a nice combo at a spot that wasn't seen as a strength coming into the season. It would be nice if there was a better opportunity to play both guys at the same time when they are playing well. Hill has now hit nine of his last 13 three point attempts, including five in a row. Hill also had a career high 8 rebounds.
* Plus / minus for this game is interesting, and it shows that sometimes the key isn't how well a player plays, but how much the drop off is behind them and how certain combinations don't work well. Nunn (-3), Tate (-4) and Morgan (-5) were the only negatives, although Egwu was a +3 in a four point win. The player that most saw as having the biggest impact outside of Rice (+10) was Malcolm Hill. He was a +5 in each of his 2nd half stints of five minutes. Joseph Bertrand was a +10 in the second half.
* Illinois trailed 55-45 with 9:04 to play, then held Boston to 7 points for the rest of the game. At 4:11 remaining it was 61-54 Boston, and the Illini closed on a 12-1 run. That's been a trademark of this team on the road, and especially of late.
* Up one, this time John Groce used a timeout and set up a dribble handoff into a ball screen with some backside action. Rice scored to put Illinois up three and change the game flow. He also went quick instead of running clock and got a 2 for 1 even if they had missed. Throughout this game, the after timeout plays were very successful at getting Illinois the looks they wanted.