The Fighting Illini needed a win against Dartmouth with ranked Oregon and Missouri on slate. With the 3-3 Big Green in town, getting the win was a little tougher than expected.
After trailing as much as 17 in the second half, Dartmouth fired back late.
Big Green freshman forward Eli Harrison and sophomore guard Alex Mitola hit back to back three’s to cut the Illini lead to 67-59 with 1:29 left in the game.
Harrison hit another three pointer to make it 67-62 with 25 seconds left, but it was too little too late for the Big Green.
Free throws by the Illini’s Joseph Bertrand and Nnanna Egwu clinched the game for Illinois as they held onto the 72-65 victory.
“Obviously two different halves there,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “I thought the first half we looked a lot like we looked in the first half in Atlanta on Sunday with our ball movement,” Groce continued, “I did not think our ball movement was as good in the second half we had 10 field goals only one assisted. We let them get loose from three and get us inside and when you pick your poison you wanna be able to take one of them away.”
The Illini were coming off an 81-62 rout of Auburn where they shot 12-23 from downtown.
Illinois once again leaned on the deep ball in this one—especially down the stretch.
Dartmouth big man Connor Boehm scored an and-one to cut it to a 56-45 Illinois lead. Junior big man Gabas Maldunas followed up the score with an open lay-up off a pass in to cut it to make it an 8-0 run for the Big Green with 7:11 left in the game.
Maldunas and Boehm kept the Big Green in the game with a variety of post moves, midrange jumpers and put backs.
“I thought we let it in too easy in the first half to those two guys, and they’re good,” Groce said. “Boehm played really well, Illinois kid, I’m sure he was looking forward to playing here. Maldunas I really liked him on film, he’s really skilled.”
Each player scored 17 points and added 9 rebounds.
The Illinois three point attack kept Dartmouth at bay.
After scoring just four points in the first half, Junior guard Rayvonte Rice made a three to pull it back out to a 62-51 game.
Senior forward Jon Ekey, who hit four three-pointers against Auburn, followed up Rice’s three to make it a 65-51 game with 2:56 left.
Rice finished with a team high 13 points and Ekey finished with 11 points and three three-pointers.
After starting the season 0-7 from downtown, freshman guard Malcolm Hill finally found his stroke, adding two three pointers to the seven three’s made by the Illini on the night.
“Coach always reminds me, I made 30,000 shots this summer and that’s not gonna be a waste,” Hill said. “So all I do is just stay confident and keep shooting the ball.”
Hill scored a career high 10 points and added 4 rebounds and 2 assists.
Even though Illinois held an opponent under 70 points for 10th straight game, Groce wants more from the defensive end.
“Going into today we were 19th in the country in defensive efficiency, and that’s who we are,” Groce said. “At the end of the game we better figure out that we gotta be that 19th ranked in the country defensive team to close it, and then the other stuff will take care of itself.”
Illinois will have to solve their defensive problems fast as they travel to Portland to play No. 15 Oregon this Saturday.