A 20-3 run to start the second half all but sealed a victory for Illinois. Just days after losing leading scorer Rayvonte Rice to a broken hand, the Illinois Fighting Illini defeated the No. 11 Maryland Terrapins 64-57 to earn their first conference victory of the 2014-15 season.
Rice's absence left a gapping hole in the starting lineup, but sophomore Malcolm Hill's stellar night helped fill the void; he finished the game with a career-high 28 points on 9/18 shooting. Wednesday night marks Illinois' first home victory over a ranked opponent since defeating No. 1 Indiana in February of 2013.
The Illini will be on the road for the next two games as they travel to Nebraska on Sunday and Northwestern next Wednesday. Before all that, here's what we learned from Illinois' big win over the Terrapins.
Things We Learned:
1. Malcolm Hill can lead this team
Replacing Rayvonte Rice for the next 4-6 weeks won't be easy, but Malcolm Hill is more than up for the challenge. The sophomore transitioned from his usual role as the "4' to fill Rice's position at the "3"; he wound up with a career-high 28 points (9/18 shooting) and 7 rebounds.
The evolution in Hill's game has been fun to watch. He's a complete matchup nightmare down low and he's finally starting to realize just how good he can be. He wasn't just making shots this game--he was making BIG shots.
2. Jaylon Tate is the most improved Illini
Sophomore point guard Jaylon Tate started his first career game on Wednesday as he replaced senior transfer Ahmad Starks in the lineup. He provided a great spark on both ends of the court and made some pressure free-throws down the stretch.
Last season, Tate wasn't able to play in Big Ten games because he was completely outmatched physically. However he's now able to contribute quality minutes after putting on some muscle on during the offseason. You won't ever see Tate stuffing the stat sheet, but his special vision and passing ability make a huge difference on offense.
3. Defense, defense, defense
With all things considered, Illinois played fantastic on the defensive end against the Terrapins. The Illini only shot 36.4% from the floor, but they were able to make up for it on defense by holding Maryland to 36.5%. Preventing Melo Trimble's dribble penetration was a focal point coming into the game and Illinois did just that; the freshman ended up with a team-high 17 points, but he shot 6/14 from the field and was even benched towards the end of the second half.
Offense was the theme during non-conference play, but defense will be need to be the key going forward if the Illini want to make the NCAA Tournament.
Illinois Fighting Illini: