CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Rayvonte Rice waited three long years and detoured 350 miles west to get to his first game at the college arena he grew up a few miles away from.
The Champaign kid made the most of his debut Friday night.
Rice scored 22 points and had nine rebounds to lead Illinois (1-0) to a season-opening 80-63 win over Alabama State (0-1).
But even after a wait that include a year of sitting out under NCAA transfer rules, Rice was nonchalant about his opener, pointing out that the team had two home exhibitions to get him used to his new home court.
“My teammates put me in great situations,” he said matter-of-factly.
But on a night when Rice was also 9-10 from the free-throw line, his teammates weren’t so casual about his performance.
“He’s aggressive. He goes to the basket and he attacks the rim,” said center Nnanna Egwu, who had a double-double with 10 points and 10 boards.
Illinois as a team went 22-30 at the free-throw line, 73.3 percent. Alabama State coach Lewis Jackson said the fouls were his team’s biggest defensive weakness.
“We’ve just got to play better defense without fouling and keep teams off the free throw line,” he said.
Joseph Bertrand scored 14 and had eight boards for the Illini.
Jamel Waters led Alabama State with 27 points. He was 5-of-6 from 3-point range.
Rice was never seriously recruited by Illinois. So he went to Drake for two seasons before head coach John Groce, in his first season, lured him back.
Groce has praised the stout, 235-pound guard for putting his off season to good use, taking off fat and adding muscle. And Rice said Friday that it has made him sharper on the court.
“Yeah, I’m, like 30 pounds lighter,” Rice said.
“He lost a whole person,” Groce deadpanned.
On Friday, Rice looked like the experienced, floor-savvy guard the very young Illini will need.
Over a three-minute span early in the second half he scored seven points, five of them from the free throw line, to push Illinois’ lead to 54-37 with 14:20 to play.
Not long after knocking down the last of those free throws, Rice headed to the bench for a breather and heard a deserved round of applause from his hometown crowd.
But he was quickly back on the court, earning a pair of free throws that he sank with 12:04 to play to put the Illini up by 21, 58-37. It was their biggest lead of the night to the point.
The Illini will be one of the smaller teams in the Big Ten, relying on a roster heavy on guards. But Friday they looked like a collection of big men against the Hornets.
Alabama State had only one player taller than 6-7 on its roster, 6-10 sophomore Devonte Neal, and he didn’t play.
That size edge translated to 34 points in the paint for Illinois. The Hornets had 16 inside.
And Illinois had a major edge on the boards, outrebounding Alabama State 52-28.
“I thought we did a lot of things well tonight, in particular the glass,” Groce said.
The Illini used strong defensive rebounding to overcome cold shooting early, turning in a pair of 7-0 runs that led to a solid 40-26 lead by halftime.
The Illini hit 15 of their 39 first-half shots — 38.5 percent — but grabbed 18 defensive boards in the first 20 minutes, keeping the Hornets from scoring a single second-chance point in the first 20 minutes.
The first of those 7-0 runs put Illinois up 22-14. Bertrand capped it with a put-back off a missed Egwu free throw with 9:12 left in the half.
The second was more decisive, giving Illinois a 38-25 lead as the half wound down. Rice struck for a 3-pointer with 2:01 left to end the run, capitalizing on an athletic defensive board by Bertrand at the other end.
Alabama State led only in the opening minutes, going up 5-2 on a 3-pointer by Brandon Graham with 17:51 left in the first half. Illinois quickly tied it and, less than a minute later, a jumper by Rice put Illinois up for good, 7-5.
The Illini host Jacksonville State on Sunday. The Hornets will travel across Illinois to face Bradley.
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