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Rice makes hometown crowd happy

Illinois guard Joseph Bertrand collides with Alabama State forward Maurice Strong during Friday's game in Champaign. Bertrand scored 14 points as the Illini won 80-63.
Illinois guard Joseph Bertrand collides with Alabama State forward Maurice Strong during Friday's game in Champaign. Bertrand scored 14 points as the Illini won 80-63.

CHAMPAIGN – Rayvonte Rice scored 22 points and had nine rebounds in his debut to lead Illinois to a season-opening 80-63 win over Alabama State on Friday.

Rice is a Champaign native, but spent two seasons at Drake before transferring to Illinois (1-0).

The hometown kid made the most of his chance Friday.

He scored seven points over a 3-minute span early in the second half to push Illinois' lead to a commanding 54-37.

Nnanna Egwu had a double-double for Illinois with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Joseph Bertrand scored 14 and had eight boards.

Jamel Waters led Alabama State (0-1) with 27 points. He was 5-of-6 from 3-point range.

Rice was never seriously recruited by Illinois. So he went to Drake before head coach John Groce, in his first season, lured him back.

Rice had to sit out a season under NCAA transfer rules, a year Groce has said the stocky guard put to good use, taking off fat and adding muscle.

On Friday, Rice looked like the experienced, floor-savvy guard the very young Illini will need.

Over a 3-minute span early in the second half, he scored seven points, five of them from the free-throw line, to push Illinois' lead to 54-37 with 14:20 to play.

Not long after knocking down the last of those free throws, Rice headed to the bench for a breather and heard a deserved round of applause from his hometown crowd.

But he was quickly back on the court, earning a pair of free throws that he sank with 12:04 to play to put the Illini up by 21, 58-37. It was their biggest lead of the night to the point.

Rice was 9-10 from the free throw line, and Illinois as a team went 22-30, 73.3 percent.

The Illini will be one of the smaller teams in the Big Ten, relying on a roster heavy on guards. But Friday they looked like a collection of big men against the Hornets.

Alabama State had only one player taller than 6-7 on its roster, 6-10 sophomore Devonte Neal, and he didn't play.

That size edge translated to 34 points in the paint for Illinois. The Hornets had 16 inside.

And Illinois had a major edge on the boards, outrebounding Alabama State 52-28.

The Illini used strong defensive rebounding to overcome cold shooting early, turning in a pair of 7-0 runs that led to a solid 40-26 lead by halftime.

The Illini hit 15 of their 39 first-half shots – 38.5 percent – but grabbed 18 defensive boards in the first 20 minutes, keeping the Hornets from scoring a single second-chance point in the first 20 minutes.

The first of those 7-0 runs put Illinois up 22-14. Bertrand capped it with a put-back off a missed Egwu free throw with 9:12 left in the half.

The second was more decisive, giving Illinois a 38-25 lead as the half wound down. Rice struck for a 3-pointer with 2:01 left to end the run, capitalizing on an athletic defensive board by Bertrand at the other end.

Alabama State led only in the opening minutes, going up 5-2 on a 3-pointer by Brandon Graham with 17:51 left in the first half. Illinois quickly tied it and, less than a minute later, a jumper by Rice put Illinois up for good, 7-5.

The Illini host Jacksonville State on Sunday. The Hornets will travel across Illinois to face Bradley.

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