Illinois Basketball: Highs and Lows of Fighting Illini's Season Thus Far
After a 7-0 start to the 2013-14 campaign, Illinois dropped games to Georgia Tech and Oregon, in which they held second half leads. The Illini then beat rival Missouri for the first time since 2008, thus entering Big Ten play with only a pair of defeats.
Conference play started off on the right foot, following Illinois' overtime victory over another rival, this being the Indiana Hoosiers. Following a home win over Penn State, Illinois hit the road at Wisconsin, one of many tough places to play in the rugged league. John Groce's squad needs to get back on track and quickly.
High: Win @ UNLV
Illinois traveled to Las Vegas during the week of Thanksgiving and on November 26 defeated the UNLV Runnin' Rebels 61-59. The orange and blue fell behind early, trailing 39-29 at halftime, before Rayvonte Rice carried the team on his shoulders, finishing with a game-high 25 points.
Rice's layup in the game's final minute put the Illini ahead for good, capping an exciting comeback and improving the team's record to 6-0. Nnanna Egwu was the only other Illini player to score in double figures, as he tallied 12 points, including two three-pointers in the second half. Egwu was also a force on the defensive end, keeping bigs Roscoe Smith and Khem Birch in check.
Low: Loss @ Georgia Tech
Just one week later, Illinois dropped their first game of the season, a 67-64 defeat at the hands of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Despite trailing by three points at halftime, Illinois was able to build up a 12-point lead midway through the second half, only to see the Ramblin' Wreck end the game on a 19-4 run of their own.
Illinois had won four consecutive Big Ten-ACC Challenge matchups prior to this disappointing loss and hurt the Big Ten's chances of winning the challenge, as each conference won six games. Rice was once again spectacular, scoring 24 for Illinois, though only Joseph Bertrand joined him in double-figure scoring, adding 10 points.
High: Win vs. Missouri
On December 21, Illinois traveled to St. Louis to take part in the annual Bud Light Braggin' Rights battle with the Missouri Tigers. Mizzou entered this year's challenge having won four straight in the rivalry, though the Illini emerged victorious by a score of 65-64.
Not only did the win end Illinois' drought against Missouri, but it also gave the Tigers their first loss of the season. Tracy Abrams led the way, scoring 22 points and burying the game-winning free throws with 4.6 seconds left. Rice contributed 14 points, while Missouri's Jordan Clarkson scored 25 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished out eight assists in the losing effort.
Low: Loss @ Northwestern
After a 25-point drubbing to Wisconsin, Illinois hoped to regain momentum in the Big Ten against the supposedly lowly Northwestern Wildcats. NU had other ideas, as they uglied it out with the Illini and won 49-43, marking the fifth straight season that Northwestern has beaten their in-state rival.
NU led 22-15 at the intermission before the Illini made a run to tie the game midway through the latter half. Illinois' inability to guard Northwestern's sixth man, Tre Demps, proved costly as Demps hit three late three-point shots to put NU ahead for good. Tracy Abrams was the only Illini to play with a pulse, scoring 13 points and dishing out five dimes. Rice strained his adductor in the second half, limiting him on both ends.
Low: Loss vs. Michigan State
On Saturday night, Illinois was given the chance to break their three-game losing streak, against an undermanned Michigan State squad. The Spartans, the preseason Big Ten favorite, were without versatile big man Adreian Payne in the contest, but came away victorious by a score of 78-62 nonetheless.
Illinois was never able to get over the hump in the ballgame, allowing the backcourt trio of Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine to combine for 53 points alone. Abrams once again led the way with 15 points, while the transfer duo of Rice and Jon Ekey scored 12 points apiece. Both Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn were impressive during their minutes off the bench, while Maverick Morgan and Jaylon Tate contributed as well.