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Illini win opener over Georgia Southern 80-71

CHAMPAIGN — You’ve got to start somewhere, and that’s what Illinois did here Friday in an 80-71 victory over Georgia Southern.

It was far from impressive. Illinois was much bigger than the Eagles yet couldn’t match them on the boards. The Illini started slowly, sprinkled in a couple of November 2013-style scoring droughts and struggled just to make it into halftime in a tie game, 31-31.

“It’s not the NBA playoffs — best of seven, best of five,” said coach John Groce. “You’ve got to show up to play that night.”

At times, the offense didn’t exist unless senior guard Rayvonte Rice led with his brawny shoulders and created it. Rice, the team’s leading scorer a season ago, had 24 points.

“He’s built like a middle linebacker,” said Georgia Southern coach Mark Byington, “and he can drive and shoot the ball.”

Groce didn’t hesitate to draw a distinction between the players who prepared the right way for this game, and those who didn’t. Rice and Seton Hall transfer Aaron Cosby, who scored 16 and added six rebounds in his Illini debut, earned postgame praise from their coach.

“But some of the guys we had to kick around a bit [in practice] didn’t play as well,” Groce said.

Groce, at least, was in midseason form when he wound up and slapped his hand on the scorer’s table after the Eagles grabbed their third offensive rebound on the same possession early in the second half. A coach who obsesses over effort and toughness can’t have loved this opening act.

In the end, though, talent won out, and it’s undeniable the Illini have more of it than they did a season ago.

Cosby, fellow transfer guard Ahmad Starks and highly touted freshman forward Leron Black all had their moments. Cosby and Starks started the game, but Black was the first to properly introduce himself to the crowd. On his second possession after entering the game, the 6-7 Black soared on a fast break, caught a Kendrick Nunn alley-oop pass and threw down a thunderous dunk.

The next time he touched the ball, Black stepped into an 18-footer with zero hesitation and knocked it in from the left wing. He finished with six points and four boards in limited minutes but left an impression on all who witnessed this non-televised affair.

“He’s aggressive. He fits who we are, what we’re about,” Groce said. “He’s fearless.”

Starks, only 5-9, had a three-possession stretch early in the second half in which he hit a three-pointer, converted a three-point play and assisted on a bullet pass to center Nnanna Egwu. The former Whitney Young star finished with 10 points.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg