Last night was a doozy of a game for Illinois at UNLV, and in the fast few minutes it could’ve been anyone’s game. Down 10 points at the half, and then down 5 points with 3:45 to go, I started to get that icky feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was my bad for losing faith, because my guys pulled through, beating UNVL on the road, 61-59.
Rayvonte Rice deserves a ton of credit (if not all) for the win, because he took the struggling Illini on his back and carried all of them to the finish line. Rice scored a season high 25 points, pulled down 10 rebounds (double double alert!) and also had 4 steals! He was a beast and he was everywhere. He is wearing my favorite number 24 and making me extremely proud. Coach Groce hyped him up starting last year even when he was sitting on the bench, and so far we have not been disappointed.
Nnanna Egwu was the only other guy in double digits with 12, and he did some impressive things as well. Though he sat out most of the first half with foul trouble, in the second he made 2 3′s. That’s right, our center who has made 1 3-pointer his entire career was 2-3 from behind the arc. When he shot that first one and missed I yelled expletives at the screen, but he shut me up real fast.
Unfortunately, everyone else was dealing with jet lag, nerves or I don’t know what. Our man Jon Ekey had an especially terrible night, though he did come through with a much-needed 3 to tie the game 59-59 with just 2:20 left in the game. As long as this slump was a one-time thing, I will lay off of Ekey.
It wasn’t that UNLV played a particularly good game, it was more like we played poorly (except for Ray Rice of course!). And, UNLV had 9 blocks for the night, including 4 from Khem Birch. They had the ability to make us look about 3 inches shorter than we really are. Also, having Egwu sit out for a good portion of the first half doesn’t help. Birch had his own double double with 12 points and 10 rebounds to go with those blocks.
Looking at the box score, the teams were pretty evenly matched, though it seemed like UNLV was getting all the steals, blocks, etc. Illinois barely won the rebound war 41-40, and shot 35.8% to UNLV’s 37.5%. UNLV had 13 TOs and Illinois had 11, but the real number to look at is at the free throw line, where Illinois had 9 attempts to the Runnin’ Rebels’ 16.
Though down 10 at the half, I wasn’t really worried until the game started to wind down. The Illini remained calm and collected throughout, though I wished with all of my heart that Brandon Paul could step in for the last few minutes and save the day. Ekey finally made that 3-pointer, and the score was stuck at 59-59 until Rice snuck in there and made a layup with 28 seconds to go.
Here’s the part where I stand up and walk around because I simply can’t sit still. UNLV has the ball, and there is plenty of time for both of us to get a turn at the basket. UNLV has just 2 fouls or something at this point, and has a lot to give. Time out from UNLV, who does nothing for about 12 seconds before calling another time out. Their hottest shooter of the night Kevin Olekaibe attempts a 3, and MISSES! Egwu gets the rebound, game over, exhale.
So the freshmen were at the game, but they weren’t in it as much as we needed them to be. Without Rice’s 25 points, we would’ve been lost. Everyone did some things here and there, but we need someone else to get really involved, or we’re not going to get as lucky as we did last night. The person I’d really like to see show up is Joseph Bertrand, who had an amazing dunk, but that’s about all I remembered of his performance. He’s our senior, and I want him to do senior things.
To be fair, this was the first road game and the guys delivered. A win is always a win, and it’s not like yesterday was supposed to be a cake walk. It was late, a weird time zone, and a road game. So I’m extremely happy with a win. And, I’m happy that Coach Groce gets to go back and take a look at all the things that we can improve for the next test at Georgia Tech on Dec. 3.
The next game will be Friday at home against IPFW, which can’t be overlooked, but it should be an easy win and a relief after the stress of Vegas.