CHAMPAIGN- After everything that the Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team has endured over the last few days, especially the Rayvonte Rice injury, head coach John Groce was hoping to give his a team a wake up call that would get them out of this funk.
Apparently that wake up call manifested itself on Wednesday night as the Illini (11-5, 1-2 Big Ten) successfully defended their home court with a 64-57 upset victory over the red hot Maryland Terrapins (14-2, 2-1 Big Ten). In the wake of losing Rice (The Illini’s top scorer and rebounder), many wondered where the Illini would find the spark they needed to move on and break their two-game losing streak.
Well that spark on Wednesday came from some unlikely sources……. Sophomore forward Malcolm Hill, senior center Nnanna Egwu and sophomore guard Jaylon Tate led the charge which kept the Illini’s State Farm Center unbeaten streak (8-0 at home this season) intact.
Hill led all scorers with a career high 28 points. He shot 9-of-18 from the field, made 4-of-7 three-point shots and contributed seven rebounds and a steal. Egwu broke out of his shell -for at least one night- by contributing 11 points, nine boards and four blocked shots.
Tate added 10 points -nine of which came from the three-point range (6-of-7)- to go with four assists in 31 minutes of play. The other two starters on the evening -guards Kendrick Nunn (sophomore) and Aaron Cosby (senior) who started in place of senior Ahmad Starks- collectively accounted for 10 points on 4-of-15 shooting.
They also combined to make 2-of-11 shots from behind the line, as well as 11 rebounds, two steals and a lone assist from Nunn. The aforementioned Starks was the only player to score off the bench (five points). This is the kind of team effort that coach Groce and the Illini nation had been looking for these last few weeks.
It’s unfortunate that it took Rice’s injury to bring out this type of effort. But it’s an effort that they’ll need to continue for the foreseeable future. Hill, the only other player averaging double figures besides Rice, will be looked to for leadership. Egwu will need to continue to be a force in the post on a constant basis.
Tate -who started in place of Rice- probably earned himself another starting opportunity. He’ll need to make the most of his next chance if he wants to stay in the lineup. Nunn, Cosby and Starks also need to score more and be more consistent.
It may not be the ideal situation, but it’s one that could keep the Illini going until Rice returns to the lineup. The question is, can the Illini play like this on a consistent basis? We’ll get the answer to that question when Illinois hits the road to play the Nebraska Cornhuskers (8-6, 0-2 Big Ten) on Sunday night.
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