With Sunday’s win at Penn State no longer in question, a smiling Rayvonte Rice broke off his strut to the free throw line to shake hands with freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill.
It was the top dog acknowledging the up and comers.
Rice knew who to thank for the Illini victory, throwing props to the youngsters for ending the miserable eight-game losing streak.
Nunn scored 19 and Hill added 11, both career highs.
It was a big move by Coach John Groce to insert those two into the starting lineup. It meant more that he still had them on the court to end the game.
Something had to change. The Illini entered last in the Big Ten with the recent history against the Nittany Lions full of tough, hard fought contests.
Why not go with Nunn and Hill? Trips to the Bryce Jordan Center aren’t easy, but those guys don’t know any better.
They played like it from the jump. Nunn paced the Illini and tied his career mark by the end of the first half, notching eight points. Hill was close behind with seven.
In the second half, the offense seemed to come and go according to when Nunn and Hill were on the floor. The half started with Illinois draining 6 of 11 shots. The baskets quit going though, particularly when Nunn hit the bench.
The Illini posted only 14 points over the final 14 minutes.
The baskets went as follows:
Nunn for 3 to take a four point lead 49-45.
Hill jumper to pull within one 51-52.
Nunn lay-up to take the lead 53-52.
A free throw by Rice provided the only other point by a player not named Nunn and Hill by the time the Illini took possession with a 54-53 lead with 50 seconds to play.
Tracy Abrams dribbled the shot clock down and penetrated. The defense collapsing opened a figure tucked in the corner… Of course it was Nunn. And of course, according to the theories of momentum in sports, his shot stripped the net.
Abrams and Rice hit free throws to clinch the victory, but that shot won the game.
The nerve of that kid!
He entered shooting less than 30 percent on three-pointers. He hadn’t hit more than two in a game all season. But that’s the shot Penn State’s zone was giving him. He had no hesitation, sinking 4 of 9.
That’s Nunn, though. He’s shown in his dustups with D.J. Newbill and Branden Dawson — he’s not backing down, even when the odds say he should.
Then there’s Hill, the baby of the bunch. The Illini’s youngest player may have it’s highest ceiling.
He’s all rangy, lanky arms and it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t always know where he’s supposed to be. He stays calm though. His play is full of poise and his tendency to sink mid-range shots is a throwback I think we all can agree is fun to watch.
Nunn’s got a little more attitude, an edge. Hill has that smooth, not-quite-sure-how-but I can-get-it-done, to his game.
Now, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. A win’s a win and no team needed it more than Illinois. Nunn and Hill were a big part of that. But it was against Penn State — a now 3-8 Penn State.You’ve got to be proud of the kids and give a nod to Groce for trusting them enough to roll with a new look.
The players those guys replaced are still important though. The fifth-year former starters responded to coming off the bench in different ways. Jon Ekey hit 2 of his 3 three-pointers and scored nine. Joe Bertrand logged a season low 13 minutes and failed to score.
Whether the freshmen or the older guys start, there still has to be a bench presence, more balance from one through 10.
That’s for Groce to figure out moving forward. He’s shown he’ll bend and flex to find a way to win. It's never easy to change lineups and rotations four months into a season. Groce wasn't too stubborn to do that.
Nunn and Hill rewarded him for it.
They didn't know any better.