Around the country Senior Nights are occurring. Player's families are in attendance dressed in their Sunday's best. Coaches present the players with framed jerseys to commemorate their time at the school and to celebrate their 4 or 5 year commitment to the program. And after all the fanfare a game is played which will be the last home game for all the seniors. This normally means that everyone involved will try their very hardest to make sure the seniors get one more great memory of home before they graduate.
The saying goes "seniors die hard" and Wednesday night against Nebraska, Illinois' seniors Nnnanna Egwu, Rayvonte Rice and Ahmad Starks proved this statement to be true. This game would join many other games that Illinois has played this year that could best be described as "mucked up". Physical battles could be seen on every possession. There would be no easy baskets for either team, other than a last second layup by Nebraska to end the first half. (I am sure a number of players got an ear full about that lapse of defense during halftime.)
Illinois clung to a very tentative 5 point lead going into the half and during the start of the second half they quickly throw any advantage they had out the window. They let Nebraska go on a 13-0 run before Rice finally hit a 3 point shot that cut the Nebraska lead back down to 2 points. For the next 12 minutes no team took more than a 5 point lead, and it felt like it was just a matter of time before someone took the final control of the game. This is where I return to that saying about seniors. Rice and Egwu made sure that this game ended up being a win for Illinois. Egwu blocked shots ran down rebounds and scratched and clawed everything he could get his hand on. Rice kept driving the ball drawing fouls and making layups. He hit 2 back to back three pointers, including one at the end of the shot clock from NBA range that was a dagger.
The rest of the team had their moments as well. Nunn had a 9 points and had a couple killer drives to the basket that he finished with a floater. That has become his signature move of late, and when that shot is falling there isn't anything the defense can do. Hill got to the free throw line to make up for an off shooting night. The other player other than Rice and Egwu that had the biggest impact on the game was Freshman Leron Black. He finished with 11 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steel in 14 minutes. Those are huge minutes from a player that Illinois will need desperately in the upcoming games. If Black can have that kind of night against Purdue on Saturday, it would go a long way towards helping Illinois' bid for an upset in West Lafayette.
Rayvonte Rice is now completely back from this injury. He showed the full range of his skillset during this game. He hit threes, drove into the lane, got easy layups and drew fouls. He fought through contact that would have knocked most players on their butts. This team will only go as far as Rice takes them.
Malcolm Hill is in a full-fledged shooting slump. He is now 1-16 from FG range in the last three games. The good news is that he is not a one dimensional player. He will find other ways to get points and help the team win. Hill ended up with 10 points off of 7-8 shooting from the free throw line, and one big three point shot. Illinois will need Hill to break out of his slump if they have any hope of winning at Purdue on Saturday.
Ryan Schmidt the student manager that was promoted to a walk on position last month, got another few seconds of dream time at the end of the game. Coach Groce made sure to get him into the game in the closing seconds to not only give Seniors Rice, Egwu and Starks standing ovations from the crowd but to also give Schmidt run more chance to walk out on the court in an Illinois jersey. In the closing second Hill did everything he could to try and get the ball to Schmidt so that Nebraska would send him to the foul line. It is too bad that he didn't get a chance to score at the end of the game.
It was a key win for the Illini and one that helped keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive. A great deal will come down to this weekend's matchup against Purdue, but the win certainly helped the team's resume.