The game was over. The picture was clear — with a 12-point lead at Georgia Tech and less than seven minutes left, the Illini were going to move to 8-0 on the season and make it five straight wins against the ACC in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. And it was all going to be because of Rayvonte Rice. He had built the big lead for Illinois from a three-point halftime deficit by scoring 15 points in the second half, including a 10-0 run of his own making. He was his usual aggressive self: driving to the basket, getting to the line, and creating fast breaks from steals. But once the Yellow Jackets adjusted their defense to take away those scoring opportunities for the redshirt junior, Rice’s teammates put on a show themselves — one of passivity and fecklessness that would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. From that point, Georgia Tech went on a 19-4 run to close out the game and notch its first Challenge win since 2006. In order for the Illini to put this collapse behind them and eventually get back to the NCAA Tournament in March, someone other than Rice will have to evolve into a consistent second option.
In the final six minutes of the game, the Illlini (at least those without Rice on the back of their jersey) went 1-of-9 from the field, including an oh-fer from deep, and committed two poorly-timed turnovers. With Rice unable to affect the game, this left the door open for players like Tracy Abrams, Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey to carry the load and seal the win. None of this group were aggressive in trying to find their own shot and it seemed as if the team’s game plan was to simply run out the clock. Particularly disappointing was Abrams who was instrumental in willing Illinois to a win over IPFW last Friday, scoring eight of his 15 points in crucial moments of the second half. As the player with the most big game experience (he leads the Illini in career minutes), and as someone known for his toughness and moxie, he managed only to take one shot (not including the final prayer at the buzzer) while Georgia Tech was storming back.
In previous outings, it has been either Abrams, Bertrand or Ekey who has stepped up to complement the steady hand, Rice. But none of these three players have proven they can be consistent scoring threats on any given night — all three players have had multiple single-figure scoring outings this season. Therefore, the scouting report is out on the Illini — focus on stopping #24 and let someone else beat you. In order to get to the other side of the bubble by March, John Groce is going to need to motivate one of his other talented but inconsistent players to become this year’s D.J. Richardson to Rice’s Brandon Paul.