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Illini cool red-hot Nebraska in 60-49 win

Illinois' Ravonte Rice tries keep grip ball as Nebraska's ShavShields (31) makes grab while Nebraska's Terran Petteway Illinois' Maverick Morgan

Illinois' Ravonte Rice tries to keep a grip on the ball as Nebraska's Shavon Shields (31) makes a grab while Nebraska's Terran Petteway and Illinois' Maverick Morgan (22) watch during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Champaign, Ill., on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Heather Coit)

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Updated: February 26, 2014 11:27PM



CHAMPAIGN — With just under 12 minutes left to play, Illinois benefitted from one of the few lucky bounces it has gotten all season.

From the top of the key, freshman guard Kendrick Nunn rose, fired and — pretty sweet for a team that shoots as poorly as the Illini have all season — banked in a three-pointer.

With that, the Illini took a 43-37 lead on Nebraska, which had entered Wednesday night’s game as perhaps the hottest team in the Big Ten.

By the time Jon Ekey tipped in a missed shot barely two minutes later, the Illini had completed a 10-0 run. It was the key surge in a 60-49 victory — the first at State Farm Center for John Groce’s team in a hard-to-believe 53 days.

“I don’t necessarily like to count the days,” Groce said. “Obviously, it’s great to win at home. I think good teams have the ability to do that.”

At 16-12 overall, and just 5-10 in Big Ten play, Illinois can’t yet pronounce itself a good team. An improving team? There’s no question about it.

They have their first two-game winning streak since the Indiana and Penn State contests that opened the Big Ten portion of the schedule. Impressively, they’ve held three consecutive opponents under 50 points scored.

Freshmen Nunn (13 points), whom Huskers coach Tim Miles called an “emerging star,” and Malcolm Hill (10 points, five rebounds) have thrived since being inserted into the starting lineup five games ago. The players they replaced — seniors Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey — have had a rough go of it, Bertrand especially.

Against Nebraska (16-11, 8-7 Big Ten), though, Ekey and Bertrand had their first major success as a duo off the bench, impacting the game in a major way with hustle plays. Their five offensive rebounds combined in the first half led to nine points. Ekey’s second-half dive into the student section to save a ball was easily one of the Illini’s plays of the season.

“I thought our effort off the bench with Bertrand and Ekey was off the charts,” Groce said.

These Illini don’t have a dark cloud following them anymore.

“The exciting thing for us is I don’t think we’ve reached our total potential,” Groce said.

Illinois has at least a flicker of hope for postseason play, too. The CBI tournament seems attainable. The NIT? It may still be a long shot, though athletic department insiders remain very hopeful.

Even if they’re wrong, winning a couple of games sure has changed the mood around here. All season, Groce has bemoaned the team’s small margin for error. After Wednesday’s win, he acknowledged that maybe that explanation doesn’t really fly anymore.

Defensively, the Illini are playing their best basketball of the season. The Huskers’ top two scorers — Big Ten leader Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields — were held to a combined 7-of-25 from the field and 21 points. That’s 28 fewer points than they hit the Illini with when the teams met earlier this month in Lincoln.

But winning this game was still a significant challenge because of the off night for both of the Illini’s top two scorers this season, Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams. Between them, they shot an awful 3-for-20. They were picked up by their teammates on an otherwise pretty well-balanced night offensively, a sign of the team’s growth.

“Things definitely feel different,” Nunn said, “but we always have to get on to the next game. We can’t worry about the past.”

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg



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