Oh man that was the funnest game we've played so far, and I honestly felt like I was watching a tournament game. Not a Sweet Sixteen game, but a first round matchup between a six and a ten seed. It wasn't pretty, but it was intense and it was up and down and it was awesome because we won.
And the biggest reason we won was Rayvonte Rice. When we go on the road in an environment like this, with a bench full of freshmen, we're going to need somebody to step up and shoulder the load if we're going to win. And Ray Rice has some broad shoulders to put it on.
Rice finished the night with 25 points, 10 rebounds and four steals, and he also hit the game-winning layup in the final minute. Early on in the night Ray was getting to the rim and seeing his shots blocked by UNLV's bigs, but it didn't deter him. He stayed aggressive all night, kept attacking and kept the Illini in the game after Nnanna Egwu picked up two early fouls and sat on the bench the final 16 minutes of the first half.
It was an awesome performance in an otherwise ugly affair.
As for the big picture, this is a big win. Come the end of the season when people are looking at resumes, they aren't going to remember that the Illini shot only 36% from the floor and played some sloppy offense. They're only going to see that we went on the road and beat a UNLV team that isn't that good right now, but I think will be more than respectable come the end of the season.
I know it's way too early to start talking about these things, but as I've said before the season began, the goal should be to see this team get to the NCAA Tournament, with the realistic expectation being the NIT. Well, wins like this make the goal that much more attainable.
We're going to have a few more tough road games coming our way in the next month before Big Ten play begins, and now this team knows it can win these games. That's a big boost.
-- One thing I took away from this game is that the freshmen didn't play scared. They didn't have great nights, but it wasn't because they were shying away from the challenge. Maverick Morgan came on in the first half with Egwu in foul trouble and gave us some very solid minutes. Austin Colbert gave some good minutes too, though he had some defensive lapses that he'll need to learn from.
-- Then there was Jaylon Tate. Jaylon didn't score a single point, but he had five assists and only one turnover. Which is becoming a common theme. Also, it wasn't hard to notice that for much of the second half, when the Illini were battling back from the 10-point halftime deficit, it was Jaylon on the court instead of Tracy Abrams. That tells you a lot about how much trust John Groce has in his freshman point guard already.
-- And then there's Tracy, who had another rough night on the offensive end. He was only 2-for-12 from the floor and had four points. However, it wasn't all bad. He did have four assists, four rebounds and two steals while playing pretty well on defense. Still, his offense is starting to become a concern for me. I feel like he's going to find his shot at some point, but god I wish it would happen sooner rather than later.
-- Nnanna Egwu is a three-point shooter all of a sudden. But getting past that, I think tonight also showed how important he is to this team. When he got in foul trouble in the first half there wasn't much the Illini could do defensively in the paint, and UNLV took advantage of it. In the second half, though, it was an entirely different story. Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith were basically non-existent on offense in the second half, and Nnanna managed to not foul, but instead just use that length of his to make life tough on people.
-- It was a very rough night for John Ekey, on both ends of the floor, but late in the second half Johnny Key showed up and hit a big shot.
-- One thing different when you're on the road? The foul calls. The Illini were attacking the rim pretty often on Tuesday night yet they shot only nine free throws. UNLV shot 16.
Points per possession: 0.91
Turnover rate: 16.4%
OR rate: 33.3%
FT rate: 13.4%
Points per possession: 0.89
Turnover rate: 19.5%
OR rate: 27.8%
FT rate: 28.6%