Illinois holds off Nebraska for badly needed win, 69-57
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) In his last game in his hometown arena, Rayvonte Rice started slow.
The Illinois guard missed three of his first four shots Wednesday against Nebraska. But the Champaign native turned it on in the second half, finishing with 23 points to lead the Illini to a badly needed win over the Cornhuskers, 69-57.
Nebraska started the second half hot and had a five-point lead early, but Rice - with some help from senior Nnanna Egwu and his eight rebounds - led the Illini back.
''We stayed poised and stayed together and just didn't buckle,'' Rice said. ''They threw a punch and we just answered.''
''I told Rice and Egwu: `I'm not going to miss them real bad,''' Nebraska coach Tim Miles joked after the game.
The Illini (19-11, 9-8 Big Ten) have won two straight as they look for a way into the NCAA tournament. Nebraska (13-16, 5-12) has lost seven games in a row and nine of its last 10.
Rice had a quiet six-point first half but scored 17 in the second 20 minutes. That included seven straight over a key stretch midway through the half that brought Illinois back from a 40-39 deficit to a 46-42 lead.
Kendrick Nunn and Leron Black added 11 each for Illinois.
Shavon Shields led Nebraska with 14 points. Terran Petteway added 13 and Leslee Smith had eight points and nine rebounds.
Illinois scrapped for a 31-23 lead with 55 seconds in the first half on a 3-pointer by Rice.
The Cornhuskers answered with a 13-0 run over the next 5:30, taking a 36-31 lead. Shields scored seven of those points, including a 3-pointer with 17:09 left in the game to put Nebraska up 34-31, its first lead since midway through the first half.
Rice finally ended the drought for the Illini, hitting another 3-pointer with 15:25 left in the game to close the gap to two points, 36-34.
Then Rice took the game in hand.
His seven straight gave the Illini a lead they wouldn't give up.
He drilled home a long 3-pointer with 1:35 left in the game to give Illinois a decisive 59-50 lead.
Rice has been the player the Illini have turned to the last past two seasons. Even after a lengthy absence in January and February due to injury and a suspension for a violation of team rules, he remains Illinois' leading scorer and rebounder.
The Illini entered the game as a bubble team in search of wins, likely at least two, to make the NCAA tournament after falling short last season.
Nebraska: Wednesday was the Cornhuskers' seventh road game in their last 10. They won just once over that stretch. After opening Big Ten play 4-3, Nebraska has fallen to 12th in the 14-team conference.
Illinois: The Illini entered the game as the country's No. 1 free-throw shooting team, hitting 79.6 percent. They were 20 of 23 Wednesday night.
With Illinois shutting down the State Farm Center for renovations after Wednesday's game, Rice played his last game at the facility he grew up dreaming about. And he took an indirect path to get there, playing two seasons at Drake before transferring to Illinois and sitting out a season under NCAA rules.
''I think Ray's had just a journey with everything he's been through,'' Illinois coach John Groce said this week. ''He's really grown up a great deal over the three years.''
Work on the State Farm Center that started at the end of last season and has continued outside the arena started up again inside almost the minute the game was over. Work crews tore down Illini banners in the players' tunnel just after the buzzer. The $169.5 million renovation will bring new seats, a new scoreboard and video boards and a range of other amenities to the 53-year-old arena. The Illini will play five early home games next season in Springfield, about 85 miles west, while the work is finished.
Nebraska closes the regular season at home Sunday against Maryland.
Illinois finishes Saturday at Purdue.