TERRE HAUTE —
Illinois had no shortage of scoring Saturday afternoon.
Rayvonte Rice dropped in 29 points. Tracy Abrams added 17.
But after the Big Ten opener against Indiana, it was defense the Illini wanted to talk about — and with good reason.
Illinois (12-2) made the most of 23 Hoosiers turnovers and held Indiana to a single field goal in overtime on the way to an 83-80 win.
“We’ve got some tough dudes. We take a lot of pride in that,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “But to their credit, they do, too.”
As the Hoosiers (10-4) went cold from the field, they kept finding their way to the free-throw line. They scored six of their nine overtime points from the line, and were 24 of 30 for the game.
The turnovers were a big difference in the game, Indiana coach Tom Crean said, but the Hoosiers’ toughness and free-throw shooting almost made up for it, he said.
“For the most part, when you’re shooting 30 free throws, you’re getting a lot of good things done,” he said.
Yogi Ferrell led Indiana with a game-high 30 points, and played 43 minutes, staying on the court through the overtime. Hoosiers freshman Noah Vonleh finished with 16 points and nine rebounds. But he fouled out with 2 seconds left in overtime.
Rice was close behind Ferrell in both points and minutes (42).
The game came down to free throws — some made, some misses — and the final half-minute of overtime was a wild scramble.
Jon Ekey stole a pass from Vonleh in the Indiana lane with 25 seconds to play and Illinois up 78-75. But Rice missed the free throws that resulted from the possession.
Rice fouled Will Sheehey at the other end, Sheehey sank both shots and Indiana was right back in it 78-77 with 22 seconds to play.
But on the next possession Troy Williams fouled Nnanna Egwu, sending the 6-foot-11 center to the line.
Egwu had been cold most of the afternoon, from anywhere on the court. That included a series of misses on long jumpers. He finished the game 3 of 11 from the field, including 0 of 5 on 3-point shots.
But he sank the two free throws and gave the Illini a tiny bit of breathing room they made stick.
Illinois never trailed in the overtime, and held the Hoosiers to a single field goal, a 3-pointer by Ferrell with 4 seconds to play that pulled them to within a point, 81-80.
But, forced to foul, Indiana had to hope the Illini would go cold.
Rice drew the foul, hit his final free throws and sealed the win. He said the free throws he’d just missed didn’t affect him when he returned to the line.
“It’s just mental,” he said. “Just go up there and knock them down.”
Rice, a Champaign, Ill., native who transferred from Drake and sat out last season, said toughness and gritty defense are things Groce has preached.
“Coach emphasized that from the first day,” he said. “Just giving the extra effort, being tough.”
One play late in the first half illustrated the degree to which Rice adds to that toughness for Illinois.
Tied at 36, Indiana moved up court, settling in to look for the final shot of the half.
But Rice cut off a pass, stealing the ball and driving for a layup. Rice was fouled by a stunned-looking Sheehey, and grinned big before he went to the line, hit the free throw and put Illinois back on top, 39-36 with 28 seconds left.
But, as Groce said, Indiana brought its own grit to the game.
When the Hoosiers went the other way, it was Sheehey who buried a 3-pointer for a 39-39 halftime tie.
“We fought, we battled,” Crean said. “And we just didn’t get the result at the end.”