It’s after a game like Illinois’ NIT opener Wednesday night that a smart aleck head coach steps to the microphone and says, “We had ‘em right where we wanted ‘em all along.”

Yeah, right.

Illinois was two things Wednesday while playing at Boston University.

Illinois was lucky. And Illinois was lucky to have Ray Rice.

Ray Rice carried Illinois the way Kenny Battle did in the most memorable Braggin’ Rights game of all time (from the Illinois perspective), and that was in December of 1988 when the Illini came from behind to beat Missouri largely because Battle had the guts, heart and unstoppable fight to make it happen.

He was the proverbial one-man wrecking crew.

That’s how it was Wednesday with Rice.

Illinois was down by 17 points with five minutes left in the first half. It was nearly time to page the pilot and tell him to gas up the team charter.

Nothing was going well. All this rhetoric about being happy to be in the NIT seemed like nonsense.

Offensively, Illinois looked like it had never seen a zone defense before. Ball movement was minimal. The bigger Illini team seemed reluctant to drive the ball inside against the smaller Terriers. No one was taking charge.

Defensively, Illinois was constantly a step slow getting to shooters. And Boston U. was proving that it has a number of shooters.

A glance at the scoreboard and this one was looking ugly.

Then Ray Rice started exerting his will. One driving basket. Then another. Then a 3-pointer.

And when John Groce turned to a smaller lineup, shifting 6-7 Jon Ekey into the post, it was as tough Boston U. felt compelled to try to take advantage. They forgot they were already beating Illinois with their regular offense.

“They tried to take advantage of the switch,” Groce said. “They kept trying to force feed it in there when it wasn’t there.”

And Rice kept on attacking. Finally, he got a little help from Joe Bertrand (9 points) off the bench. Freshman Malcolm Hill played well, scoring 10 points. Jon Ekey made a couple of plays.

And when Illinois needed a big defensive play, Rice delivered that, too, stealing the ball and driving for a 3-point play to make the comeback seem possible.

Rice finished with 28 points. He made 11 of 14 shots and grabbed eight rebounds. He was the pack mule that carried the rest of the team up the mountain.

And so Illinois advances to play at Clemson.

As I write this, we still don’t know game time. But John Groce said it would be Saturday, Sunday or Monday.

By all rights, the Illini season should be done. But thanks to one guy’s crazy refusal to lose, the season is extended.

If Kendrick Nunn, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu want to show their appreciation, they should do a little more early in that Clemson game. Expecting Rice to save the day two games in a row is too much to ask. It was nearly too much to ask once.

(6) comments

Pistol Pete

Yes, kudos to R Rice! I was about ready to put away my Illini shirts until next season. We definitely looked soft & weren't ready to play, but BU couldn't stop our fullback from getting to the hole.
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I was expecting to at least know the day of our game with Clemson, but maybe not the time of the start. Being on Sat., Sun., or Mon. is really vague.

crkcrk2
crkcrk2

It looked early like Rice was going to be able to penetrate inside against the smaller Boston guards.

Agree with Mark, ball movement on our part was rather lame.

Seemed Boston was massively quicker they were during the first half, seemed they slowed down in the second half. We actually better shooting percentages across the board, by the end of the game. crk

crkcrk2
crkcrk2

Pete, I would guess that the television networks have to work out what day would be best for them? Not easy to be a student-athlete during March. crk

Tendonitis Tom

I love it (not) when we're being zoned, everyone knows we need to flash to the FT line area, Malcolm flashes open to the FT line area, and Abrams looks right at him but won't pass him the ball in there. This game was early B1G season redux. We got lucky their big galoot was tired at the end and missed that bunny off the inbounds. I'd like to see the frosh get to the Garden for a game or two. Another game like that ain't gonna cut it.

The Clemson game is at 10:00 a.m. Sunday morning, CST. Not a misprint.

Pistol Pete

I'm also baffled about how we attack a zone. There obviously has to be more passing than dribbling & it seems like I could use less than 10 fingers to count how many times this year we've passed the ball to someone who's flashed to the open area around the FT line. I'm pretty sure we learned that in Jr High.
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Yeah, all of these torney start times are dictated by the TV networks, but 10:00 A.M.? I can handle it, but that has to be tough for players. I guess I could watch the game while having my late Sunday morning breakfast.

crkcrk2
crkcrk2

Da Mercer Bears gave Duke a passing clinic yesterday. Agreed, all that dribbling reminded me of the Chester Frazier-Trent Meachum days.

As has been suggested often, you can almost tell by his eyes that once Abrams has decided he is going to shoot, where other players on the court makes no difference.

I am glad Groce thinks he is a "bulldog." He is kind of like the English Bull I used to have. Once "Menance" got his jaws around a rope toy, he never let go. We could carry him around the room, and he was oblivious to anything else in the room beside holding onto that robe.:)

Given Clemson's performance against Duke and Pitt this looks to be a challenging game. crk

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