Illinois survives struggling Rutgers, 66-54
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) When leading scorer Rayvonte Rice went down in January with a broken hand, Illinois was 0-2 in the Big Ten and facing what figured to be a struggle.
But in just about every game since, Illinois has found a scorer to replace Rice's points and grind out conference wins.
Tuesday night it was Kendrick Nunn's turn.
The sophomore scored a game-high 21 and the Illini survived slumping Rutgers, 66-54.
''Like coach (John Groce) said, it's February and it's time to minimize mistakes and play our best basketball,'' Nunn said.
Illinois (15-8, 5-5 Big Ten) is 5-3 since Rice went down and, with Tuesday's win, has clawed its way to the middle of the conference pack.
Rutgers faced the same challenge on Tuesday it has all season. Who will score besides Kadeem Jack and Myles Mack?
Jack led Rutgers (10-14, 2-9) with 17 points and nine rebounds. Mack added 16 points and six rebounds. Beyond them, Rutgers managed just 21 points.
''We need to find a third scorer,'' Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan said. ''It could be done by committee or it could be a different guy night after night. But Kadeem and Myles need some help in the scoring department.''
Rutgers has now lost seven straight.
Malcolm Hill scored 15 for Illinois. Ahmad Starks added 13 points off the bench and Leron Black had 12 for Illinois.
Illinois led by as many as 17, but Rutgers closed to within eight at 62-54 with 2:36 to play on a 3-pointer by Jack.
With the Scarlet Knights forced to foul, Nunn hit a pair of free throws with 53 seconds left to open the lead back to a safe 10, 64-54.
Rutgers was in the game early, too, taking a 20-19 lead with 7:06 left in the first on a highlight dunk by Shaquille Doorson. But the Illini quickly took that lead back and then took off.
They used a 16-4 run to close the half for a 35-24 edge.
Hill and Jaylon Tate finished the half on a fast break. Tate stole the ball from Junior Etou and took off up the right side of the court with Hill on his left. As they neared the basket and the lone Rutgers defender, Tate fed the ball behind his head to Hill, who took the pass and finished with an easy layup.
Starks provided an early spark off the bench for Illinois with eight first-half points and a pair of 3-pointers that kept Rutgers from pulling away. He transferred from Oregon State as that school's leading all-time 3-point shooter, but has mostly struggled at Illinois after sitting out last season.
Mack's scoring was limited by a 1-of-8 night from 3-point range. In all, Rutgers was 4 of 18 from behind the arc.
In addition to playing again without Rice, Aaron Cosby was out of the lineup again Tuesday. Rice has been out since early January with a broken hand and Cosby since Jan. 18 with a torn retina. Both could have returned in Saturday's win over Penn State but were indefinitely suspended before the game for unspecified team-rules violations by Groce.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights were picked by many to be among the worst in the Big Ten in their opening season. But on Jan. 11, they delivered one of the upsets of the season, knocking off then-No. 4 Wisconsin. Rutgers has since dropped seven straight.
Illinois: The Illini haven't won back-to-back games in the Big Ten since winning three straight last February and March.
HILL ON OFFENSE
Since Rice injured himself in practice in early January, Hill has become Illinois' biggest weapon. Over nine games, he's averaging 15 points a game.
Rutgers struggled early Tuesday to take care of the ball and Illinois turned those miscues into points. The Scarlet Knights had nine turnovers at halftime, and the Illini turned them into 11 of their 35 points. Rutgers finished with 14 turnovers, leading to 15 Illinois points.
Rutgers: Hosts No. 20 Ohio State on Sunday.
Illinois: Heads to Michigan State on Saturday.