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Illini drop third straight as Purdue wins 66-58

Purdue forward Jay Simpsputs up shot over Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice (24) during second half an NCAA college basketball game

Purdue forward Jay Simpson puts up a shot over Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice (24) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Rick Danzl)

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Updated: January 15, 2014 10:09PM

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois answered several questions about itself here on Wednesday night.

Unfortunately, the answers didn’t add up to a victory over Purdue. The Illini (13-5, 2-3 Big Ten) lost their third straight game, 66-58.

But it’s a long season, and those nagging questions are important.

Yes, the team’s top offensive weapon, Big Ten scoring leader Rayvonte Rice, is OK physically. Rice, who suffered a strained hip muscle in the Illini’s previous outing, had been classified by coach John Groce as a game-time decision for this matchup with Purdue.

After some extra pregame stretching and treatment, the junior shooting guard started the game, logged heavy minutes and scored 11 points.

No, starters Jon Ekey and Nnanna Egwu aren’t out of their shooting slumps. Not by a long shot. Neither player scored until Ekey’s three-pointer in the game’s 33rd minute gave the Illini a 50-49 lead.

It was only the sixth make in the last 27 attempts from beyond the arc for the Illini’s best long-distance shooter, who did hit another three before the night was through. Egwu, meanwhile, continues to struggle like never before in his career. The 6-11 junior was 0-for-7 from the floor and is shooting an abysmal 27.3 percent over the last seven games.

Yes, the Illini appear to have at least one young player who’s ready to make positive contributions on a regular basis. Kendrick Nunn scored eight points, one of the top scoring games this season for any of the team’s five freshman reserves.

Fellow freshman Malcolm Hill, meanwhile, had only his second effective performance in the past month-plus. Hill scored seven points and added five rebounds, all in the first half. He played little in the second half, though, frustrating some fans who wanted to see the program’s most highly touted newcomer break out of his funk.

The Boilermakers (12-5, 2-2) — who were led by seven-footer A.J. Hammons’ 17 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots — have now won nine of 10 in the series.

It only gets tougher from here for the Illini, who face four teams ranked in the top 14 in their next five games, beginning here on Saturday against Michigan State.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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