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Illini leading scorer Rice blanked in Ohio State’s 62-55 victory

Illinois Rayvonte Rice (24) goes up for shot between Ohio State's Sam Thomps(12) Trey McDonald (55) during first half an

Illinois Rayvonte Rice (24) goes up for a shot between Ohio State's Sam Thompson (12) and Trey McDonald (55) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Columbus, Ohio, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. ( AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

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Updated: January 24, 2014 7:26PM



COLUMBUS, Ohio — Illinois needed a slump-buster of a ballgame in the worst way. What it got instead Thursday night was a whole new level of slumping from its leading scorer, junior guard Rayvonte Rice.

Improbably, Rice went scoreless — for the first time in his career — missing all eight of his field-goal attempts in a 62-55 loss to No. 17 Ohio State. His previous low had been six points, which happened three times over his two seasons at Drake.

Four games ago, Rice was at the top of the heap among Big Ten scorers. Now he’s in the slump of his life, having missed nearly 75 percent of his field-goal attempts during the Illini’s five-game losing streak.

Just like that, Rice is barely hanging on to a spot among the conference’s top 10 scorers.

“Ray’s definitely going to be fine,” insisted senior guard Joseph Bertrand, who led the Illini (13-7, 2-5 Big Ten) with 19 points.

Illini fans are wringing their hands over the state of the hip muscle Rice injured two Sundays ago in a defeat at Northwestern. According to coach John Groce, that injury wasn’t a factor in Rice’s struggles against the Buckeyes (16-4, 3-4).

“He’ll be the first to tell you, he doesn’t have any excuses,” Groce said.

Nnanna Egwu, the junior center who emerged from his own prolonged slump to score 10 points and grab nine rebounds, wasn’t so sure.

“I really don’t know,” Egwu said. “Ray’s a tough guy. He’s not going to tell you anything.”

Junior point guard Tracy Abrams, typically the team’s second-most reliable scorer, also had an off night, shooting 2-for-8 from the field. For a while, it appeared the Illini might rise above it; despite zero first-half points from Rice or Abrams, they led 25-24 at the break.

Instead — on a day when athletic director Mike Thomas was given a raise and had his contract extended three years through 2019 — Thomas’ signature hire backslid into the first five-game skid of his coaching career.

Groce is trying to build something that will last. His veteran players, up to their chests in a promising season gone pretty bad — potentially, really bad — don’t have time on their sides.

“We know we have a good team,” Bertrand said. “We’ve just got to finish out games.”

The Buckeyes, once ranked No.  3, ended a four-game skid of their own. They were led by LaQuinton Ross (18 points) and Lenzelle Smith Jr. (16).

Smith, a friend of Rice’s from their days as AAU teammates, said after the game that the two were “living a dream” by sharing a court as Big Ten players.

Presumably, Rice would describe the worst game of his career as more of a nightmare.

And Illinois fans might describe Value City Arena as a house of horrors. The Illini have lost 11 of 13 games here.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SLGreenberg



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