Dec. 11, 2013
By Lexi Shurilla, fightingillini.com staff writer
Illinois 72, Dartmouth 65
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Illinois led wire-to-wire for the fourth time this season.
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Coming off of a dominating win against Auburn on Sunday in Atlanta, Illinois cruised to victory against a pesky Dartmouth team Tuesday night at State Farm Center, leading from wire-to-wire but never pulling away from the Big Green. The final was 72-65 in favor of the Orange and Blue, who have now won 29th straight non-conference home games. It marked the lone home game during a tough six-game stretch that started with back-to-back trips to Atlanta last week and is followed by three-straight neutral site games in Portland (Dec. 14 vs. No. 15 Oregon), St. Louis (Dec. 21 vs. No. 24 Missouri) and Chicago (Dec. 28 vs. UIC).
Illinois shot over 50 percent for the second consecutive game and third time this season, finishing 26-of-50 (52 percent) from the field. Defensively, the Illini were solid again, holding their opponent to under 70 points for all 10 games this season, something no UI squad has done since the 2005-06 did it for its first 16 games.
The Illini had a solid first half, leading the Big Green 39-27 at the break, but the Illini defense wasn't prepared for Dartmouth coming out firing in the second half. Dartmouth made it a little interesting at the end, closing to within five in the final minute, but the Illini hit 4-of-4 free throws in the final 20 seconds to put the game away before Dartmouth threw in a throw-away three at the buzzer.
"Obviously, two different halves there," Illinois head coach John Groce said. "I thought the first half, we looked a lot like we looked the first half we had in Atlanta on Sunday. With our ball movement, we had nine assists on 16 field goals. I thought the ball moved really well. Their two post players got us a little bit in the first half, but we were trying to do everything we could to defend the three. They were one for seven for the half, and we were up twelve. We liked the position we were in there. I thought we had played pretty well other than giving up some second chance points.
"And then the second half, we get off to a pretty good start but I did not think our ball movement was as good in the second half. We let them get loose from three and get us inside. And when you pick your poison you want to be able to take one of those away, we didn't really take either one of them away late in the game which led to their comeback."
Senior Rayvonte Rice led the Illini scoring for the fifth game in a row and seventh time this season with 13 points as five Illini reached double-figures. Rice is one of only two Big Ten players to score at least 12 points in every game this year, along with Penn State's D.J. Newbill.
"We've got to close better than what we did today," Groce said. "We've got to execute better. All of us have to take a look at that and we have to improve in that area. I do want to give a lot of credit to the guys that came off of the bench.
"I thought those guys were really ready to go. Had they not been that ready to go tonight, I don't know if we would have escaped. So I'm really, really encouraged by that, we're going to continue to build those guys up and help them grow but I thought tonight they really had it."
It's easy to forget that the Illinois bench is young, very young, with five freshmen and one sophomore filling out the Illini roster. The five freshmen - Malcolm Hill, Jaylon Tate, Kendrick Nunn, Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan - showcased how much they've grown in their short time at Illinois against the Big Green.
Giving Illinois a much-needed spark to the offense, Hill reached double figures for the first time in his career with 10 points, including two three-pointers. Freshmen accounted for 13 of the Illini's first-half points and 17 for the game.
"It gives me a lot more confidence," Hill said. "They always tell me to stay aggressive and don't worry about your shot, it's going to come. Coach always reminds me that I made 30,000 shots this summer and it's not going to be a waste. All I did was stay confident and kept shooting the ball."
"Between him and Ray, I've never seen anybody draw as many fouls as this kid right here," Egwu said of Hill. "It's unbelievable some of things he does to draw fouls. He's aggressive, and one thing I like about him is he's grown a lot from summer to now. He forgets about the last play and moves on to the next play. He did that a lot today. One of the shots he missed, the next time he came back and took another one."
Coach Groce says that Hill has played hard defensively throughout the season with very few mistakes, and he will continue to play the freshmen on the team as the Illini come near the end of its non-conference schedule.
"Malcom was really good defensively, like he's always been," Groce said. "We knew the shots would eventually fall for him. He's too good, he works too hard, he's too good of a shooter, scorer and tonight a couple fell for him in addition to what he was giving to us on the defensive end."