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Rayvonte Rice a one-man gang as Illini rally on road in first round of NIT

Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice (24) Illinois forward NnannEgwu (32) smile as they celebrate after their NCAA mens NIT college basketball

Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice (24) and Illinois forward Nnanna Egwu (32) smile as they celebrate after their NCAA mens NIT college basketball game against Boston University in Boston, Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Illinois defeated Boston University 66-62 in a come-from-behind victory late in the second half advancing to the second round of the NIT Tournament. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia) ORG XMIT: MASS105

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This was the Rayvonte Rice whom Illinois fans came to know back in November and December but then, as the Big Ten portion of the schedule wore on, often found themselves missing.

Good ol’ Ray carried the day for the Illini in their opening game of the National Invitation Tournament, willing his team to a 66-62 comeback victory against Boston University on Wednesday night.

After an up-and-down regular season, the Illini’s leading scorer, a junior shooting guard in his first year in the program, took a hideous situation for his team and turned it into a personal masterpiece. BU led 30-13 late in the first half, and Rice was stuck on two points. By the end, Rice had 28 and the Illini — who didn’t claim the lead until less than two minutes remained — had their 20th victory and were on to a second-round game at Clemson.

It wasn’t the Breslin Center, Crisler Arena, the Kohl Center or anything like one of the Big Ten’s hallowed houses of basketball. It was Agganis Arena, home to the 24-win Terriers of the Patriot League. BU lost the title game of that conference’s tournament, just missing out on the Big Dance.

It also wasn’t the State Farm Center, where No. 2 seed Illinois would have been hosting a game if not for the renovations that already are underway there.

With as many Illinois fans in the crowd as not, the seventh-seeded Terriers came out firing from long range, scoring 30 of their first 44 points on three-point shots. They finished 11-for-25 from beyond the arc, but the Illini defense swarmed the three-point line down the stretch when it counted.

Rice got very little help from his running mates. Freshman Kendrick Nunn had by far his worst outing in the 11 games since he entered the starting lineup. Junior point guard Tracy Abrams — who lit up Indiana for 25 points in the Big Ten tournament — was a near no-show with one field goal in 34 minutes. Junior center Nnanna Egwu, arguably the team’s most valuable player during its late-season surge into the postseason, spent 35 minutes appearing mostly clueless about how to take advantage of a much smaller BU front line.

Hang this “W” on Rice’s shoulders, and understand that nothing ever comes easily for this team. Although eight of 17 three-point shots fell in this game, shooting continues to be an enemy. Defense continues to be the Illini’s first — and sometimes only — way out of sticky situations.

But Rice seems to have a take-over-a-game gear that’s there to be pushed given the right opponent. BU played a zone that screamed for Illinois to drive to the rim, and Rice took that cue and ran with it.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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