Rice propels Fighting Illini offense in NIT

Despite the Boston University men’s basketball team’s ability to lead the University of Illinois for most of the game, Illini guard Rayvonte Rice guided his team to a 66-62 win in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament.

Rice, who transferred from Drake University after his first two collegiate seasons, responded to his team’s 17-point deficit with an extraordinarily efficient second-half performance. He led his team in scoring on the season and finished ninth in the Big Ten Conference with 15.5 points per game and averaged six boards per game.

The 6-foot-4 guard led the Fighting Illini (20-14) with a game-high 28 points and eight rebounds. Overall he finished 11-for-14 from the floor and 2-for-5 from 3-point territory and did not miss a chance in the final 10 minutes.

Rice’s performance very much mirrored the play of the Fighting Illini, which got off to a cold start. Similarly, Rice only made one field goal in the opening nine minutes.

The Champaign, Ill., native stayed persistent, though, as he finished with eight points and six rebounds at the end of the first half, helping Illinois cut the lead for the Terriers (24-11, 15-3 Patriot League) down to nine.

Rice carried his improved play into the second half. On the Fighting Illini’s first possession of the second, Rice got the ball on the post, where he worked against sophomore guard John Papale to convert a layup while being fouled. Rice hit the free throw, which brought BU’s lead down to six

After sophomore guard Maurice Watson Jr. made a 3-pointer at the 17:42 mark, Rice came back down to other end of the floor and answered with a three of his own from the corner, reducing the Illinois deficit to four.

Rice demonstrated an aggressive style for most of the second half, driving to the rim when he touched the ball. At the 9:24 mark, he quickly dribbled the ball around the perimeter and drove into the paint for a reverse layup.

With 6:30 left, Rice caught a pass and nailed a corner 3-pointer. On the very next possession, off of a Terrier miss, Rice drove, and without hesitation, gently guided the ball in off the glass, cutting BU’s lead to two.

For much of the second half, the two teams traded baskets, with the Fighting Illini slowly getting the best of the Terriers. The final sequences within the last two minutes, however, finally gave Illinois the lead through the energetic play of Rice.

With 2:11 to go and BU holding onto a four-point lead, senior forward Dom Morris attempted to hand the ball of to Watson, but instead the senior lost control and Rice saw an opening to pounce on the error. The guard snatched the ball up, drove down to the other end of the floor and converted his layup attempt while being fouled as Watson tried to wrap his arms around Rice. The junior then stepped up to the line in front of a frantic section of BU students and knocked down a free throw.

“We were just trying to be tough on the ball,” Rice said, “and we got a steal and made a play.”

Thirty seconds later, Rice found himself again unnerved at the free-throw line, where his two shots gave the Fighting Illini a 62-61 lead. Then, with 49 seconds left, made a move to the basket and into the body of senior forward Travis Robinson and fought his way into the paint where he again converted a close-range shot.

“I thought Ray was a monster,” said Illinois coach John Groce. “He had sent me a text a few days ago basically saying he was ready to go, and he was. Part of it was Ray was playing for [the seniors]. He stepped up and made big plays.”

Rice again led his team in scoring, but the guard credited much of the effort to his fellow Illini.

“My teammates were doing a great job of finding me and putting me in a great position to score,” Rice said. “I was just playing for [the seniors], we don’t want it to be their last game. We just keep fighting.”

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