Rice, Bertrand Spark the Energy

Rice, Bertrand Spark the Energy

It's not surprising that two of the Illinois' oldest players, Joe Bertrand and Ray Rice, started the positive movement. It's also encouraging that everybody else followed suit.

CHAMPAIGN – A few minutes into the second half during Friday's season opener, with the Illini shooting free throws and extending a lead, Rayvonte Rice and Joe Bertrand took to the backcourt together.

Both had real big grins spreading wide across their faces. And why not?

It was their aggressiveness that sprang Illinois to life offensively after a hesitant start against the Alabama State zone. It was their activity in the paint that pushed the rebound margin further and further into the Illini's favor.

Their play, according to Coach John Groce, was contagious, the catalyst as Illinois pushed on for an 80-63 victory.

"I thought those guys made some good plays for us," Groce said. "…We just had a real good energy about us."

For all the talk about getting the freshmen ready and wondering how the rotation would play out after the offseason roster overhaul, it was the veterans who made sure Illinois performed like it was supposed to.

It's funny how that worked out. Not really, though.

"Our veterans have to be consistent," Groce said. "It's interesting, I thought they practiced that way the last two days and then they played that way tonight."

Rice was especially instrumental in bringing the crowd in the State Farm Center to life. He had 22 points, tying Brandon Paul's school record for points scored in a debut. He added nine rebounds and sank 9 of his 10 free throws, the freebies an obvious reward for his crashing attacks to the basket.

"My job is to be aggressive and do what I can and do what my team needs me to do," the Drake transfer said. "My teammates put me in great situations to score the ball tonight."

Rice, like his teammates, didn't start aggressively. The Hornets came out in zone defense to start the game. The Illini missed 12 of their first 17 shots, eight of their first nine 3s.

"We kind of were tentative," junior center Nnanna Egwu said.

That's when Rice and Bertrand initiated the jump-start. Rice had two three-point plays and Bertrand scored twice, both times after pulling in an offensive rebound. From there, everything seemed to open up. The Illini took control and led by 14 at halftime and cruised on for the win.

Rice stole the show. But credit Bertrand, too, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds and played with the same aggressive spirit.

"Joe played today like he's been practicing," Groce said. "He's been practicing like that everyday. He's been very consistent with his effort and his production.

Egwu had his second career double double, notching 10 and 10. He said he took his cue from Rice.

"He's aggressive. He attacks, goes to the basket and attacks the rim," Egwu said. "He helps out all of us. Once he's attacking the basket, you have to come and collapse and that's when you can dish it out for open 3-point shooters or dump it down to me." In total, the Illini out-rebounded ASU 52-28 and held the Hornets to 35 percent shooting (23-66).

It's not surprising that two of the team's oldest players, Bertrand and Rice, started the positive movement. It's also encouraging that everybody else followed suit.

"I just liked the way about us that we had tonight," Groce said. "I thought our energy, our motor, our preparation today in shoot-around, I could tell, I could look in their eyes and see that they had it today. We've got to have it every day. We've got to be more consistent. It's very important we have that mindset, that energy about us."

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