Illinois scrapes by Georgia Southern, 80-71
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Rayvonte Rice scored 24 points to lead sluggish Illinois to an 80-71 season-opening win over Georgia Southern Friday.
After opening up an early 11-point edge, the Illini (1-0) never led by double-figures again until the game's final minute.
Aaron Cosby added to the offense in his Illinois debut. The transfer from Seton Hall scored 16 points.
Georgia Southern gave the Illini trouble on the boards. The Eagles outrebounded Illinois 41-34 and used 19 second-chance points to stay close most of the night.
But the Eagles sent Illinois to the free throw line again and again. The Illini were 27 of 34 from the line. Sophomore Malcolm Hill was 7 of 10 and finished with 11 points.
Jelani Hewitt led the Eagles with 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. Trent Wiedeman added 17 points and a game-high nine rebounds.
Illinois was among the Big Ten's lowest scoring teams last season, and coach John Groce went into the season hoping points would be easier to come by for the Illini. The additions of transfer guards Ahmad Starks and Cosby were intended to help turn the offense around.
And early, it looked like Illinois might breeze past the Eagles.
The Illini built an early 16-5 lead on a 9-0 run, capped by a midrange jump shot by Leron Black.
But Hewitt found his 3-point touch, and the Eagles stayed close most of the night. His 3-pointer with 6:30 left in the first half gave Georgia Southern the lead, 22-19.
Starks became Illinois' No. 1 point guard when Tracy Abrams went down with a knee injury, one that will cost Abrams this season. But the transfer from Oregon State struggled at times to run the Illini offense on Friday.
Rice was the difference for Illinois.
He scored 14 second-half points and finished with a steal, six rebounds and three assists. His last assist, a feed to Cosby on the baseline, helped finally give Illinois a comfortable lead. Cosby buried the 3-pointer to put the Illini up 73-64 with 1:55 to play.
Georgia Southern: Hewitt was the Eagles' leading scorer last season, averaging 19.2 a game. He was a 36 percent 3-point shooter, draining 85 from the 3-point line. And he was the biggest spark for the Eagles in their near-upset against Miami, scoring 27 in the 81-80 loss. He picked up Friday where left off last season.
Illinois: Starks is known as a shooter, but he started slow there Friday night, too. He was 0-4 from the field over the first 20 minutes and finished 2-11 with 10 points.
Georgia Southern hosts Trinity on Tuesday.
Illinois hosts Coppin State on Sunday.