BOSTON – The motivation for most NIT participants can be boiled down to three words: Madison Square Garden. It’s the site of the semifinal and championship games.
The three words that fueled Illinois’ huge comeback Wednesday night were these: Seniors Die Hard.
Illini coach John Groce uttered them after his team rallied from 17 points down for an impressive 66-62 victory over Boston University.
OK, so it was the first round of the NCAA tournament’s consolation bracket.
And it came against a team from the Patriot League.
Still, it marked a huge night for Rayvonte Rice, who scored a game-high 28 points on 11-for-14 shooting and was all but unstoppable down the stretch.
“He’s a strong kid, and he’s pretty skilled as well,” BU’s D.J. Irving said. “He took control of the game.”
The victory sends Illinois to Clemson for a compelling Big Ten-ACC matchup at a date to be determined. And it allows seniors Joseph Bertrand and John Ekey to extend their playing careers.
“Joe and John, you could see in their eyes that they wanted to compete and find a way,” Groce said. “And I thought Ray was a monster.”
Groce said that Rice texted him recently to promise he would be ready for the matchup that took place at Agganis Arena while the State Farm Center undergoes renovations.
After a reporter asked Rice if his text was colorful, Groce jumped in, saying: “It was polite. He’s always respectful.”
Said Rice: “I was just telling him that we weren’t going to give up … I’m playing for these guys, John and Joe. We didn’t want this to be that last game.”
It certainly looked like it would be. The Terriers (24-11) took a 30-13 lead on a 30-8 run, during which they drained 3-pointers from all over the floor.
“I felt like they were readier, to be honest,” Groce said. “I thought we were soft and not real smart. We turned the ball over; we were too casual. They played with more purpose. But we kept playing.”
With about 2 minutes to go, Rice made a steal near the top of the key, powered through a foul by Maurice Watson, and made the layup and subsequent free throw. Two more Rice free throws gave Illinois its first lead since the game’s opening minutes.
Rice then got freed on a screen and jetted through the lane for another layup, and a 64-61 advantage. Down 64-62, BU’s Dom Morris missed a contested layup on an inbounds play. Nnanna Egwu’s free throws sealed it for the Illini (20-14).
“I’m proud of our guys,” Groce said, “for not getting discouraged.”