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.”
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.