CHAMPAIGN – The opponent was unknown, the game didn’t count and the stands were half full.
But none of that mattered when the game was tight in the second half Sunday in the State Farm Center, the importance made clear by a blast of emotion from Rayvonte Rice.
The junior guard let out a ‘Let’s go!’ after hitting his second of three treys, a critical make amid a run of points that carried the Illini from a one-point deficit to a win running away. Rice scored 12 of his team-high 16 points after halftime to lead Illinois to a 83-67 win in the season’s second and final exhibition.
“Coach tells me when I’m open, shoot it,” Rice said. “My teammates did a great job finding me.”
It wasn’t pretty, but Coach John Groce said he’s OK with encountering difficult circumstances at this point in the season. With a roster full of players still with plenty to learn, Groce said Northwood presented a challenge that needed to be passed.
“I’m trying to learn, for sure,” Groce said. “As I’m watching I’m really learning. It was good tonight we got to go against zone. It was good tonight that they pressed us. Coaches, we’re weird guys. I was, like, glad we were going through those things. I wanted us to grow through those conditions.”
Groce got to learn about his team with a new starting lineup. Junior Tracy Abrams missed the game with a mild strained hamstring and Rice didn’t play for the first 12:30 of the first half because of what Groce simply said was his decision.
Rice entered the game and started slowly until his second half run of baskets.
“Whether I start or not, that’s not going to affect my game,” he said. “My job is to go out there and compete with my team.”
Groce said Abrams protested to sitting out Sunday’s exhibition, adding that he “feels good” about his status for Friday’s season opener against Alabama State.
Freshmen Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn started Sunday, a move that began seamlessly.
High school teammates, Nunn scored eight points and Tate added six as the Illini built a 43-19 lead.
From there, though, the freshmen began to show a more youthful look.
The Timberwolves went on a 29-4 run as the Illini at one point missed 17 of 18 shots and struggled to maintain defensively.
Groce said he wasn’t as concerned about the troubles with scoring. His message to the team was that defensive performance should be exclusive from what’s happening on the other end.
“Are we grinding yet, consistently enough? Not to my liking,” Groce said. “It’s still early, but this will be a great teaching tool I think for us to reference about not tying our defensive effort and execution to the offensive end.”
Northwood pulled to within four nearly five minutes into the second half. Differing from his methods in the first exhibition, where Groce didn’t call a timeout when his team fell behind by 11, he elected to stop the action and re-focus his guys.
“I thought we were getting tentative,” Groce said. “I didn’t like the look in our eyes at that point. I thought, what did we do that for? We don’t do that here. There for a minute it never looked like we’d gone against a team before that’s went on a run. It happens all the time. You’ve got to figure that out. I just wanted to remind them, hey, this is who we are, we’re fine here, show great poise and let’s get some stops.”
Although Northwood briefly took the lead 49-48, the team left that huddle playing better on both ends of the court. Rice’s flurry of points re-established proper order, as the Illini scored 34-18 run to close it out.
“I thought we stayed poised for the majority of the time despite them coming back,” sophomore guard Mike LaTulip said. “… I think that’s something that’s a positive about our team. Despite them coming back, the fact that we showed poise through situations like that is definitely a positive.”
LaTulip finished with 14 points on 3-of-5 shooting from long range. Tate added 11 and freshman Malcolm Hill and senior Joe Bertrand each had 10.
Following the game, with the team’s on-going identity building as hot a topic as ever, Groce continued to stress the importance of maximizing every opportunity.
“I’m not going to sit here and say I like going through a 29-4 drought during the game,” he said. “I don’t know if I like it that much, but can you find the positive in that? Can you turn lemons into lemonade? Yeah. Sure.”