Malcolm Hill scores 28 as Illinois upsets No. 11 Maryland

SHARE Malcolm Hill scores 28 as Illinois upsets No. 11 Maryland
SHARE Malcolm Hill scores 28 as Illinois upsets No. 11 Maryland

CHAMPAIGN — No Rayvonte Rice? No problem.

Turns out the key to Illinois’ season was getting its best player off the court. Not really, but for one night — in a surprisingly thorough 64-57 victory over No. 11 Maryland — it sure seemed like the Illini were a better team without Rice, who broke a bone in his left hand during a Monday practice.

On Wednesday morning, the senior guard and team scoring and rebounding leader underwent surgery for an injury that could keep him out of action for a month or longer. Come Wednesday evening, against a 14-1 team off to a 2-0 start on its initial Big Ten voyage, the Illini were intense and competitive throughout the first half and utterly dominant for most of the second.

It didn’t make much sense, given how good Rice has been all season, but the Illini (11-5, 1-2 Big Ten) weren’t about to question it. Instead, they rallied behind a career-best scoring night for sophomore swingman Malcolm Hill, who had 28 in a career-high 38 minutes. They followed the lead of Nnanna Egwu at the defensive end, where the senior center played insatiably, blocking four shots to go with his 11 points and nine rebounds over 39 dogged minutes.

“The most important thing is we didn’t write ourselves off [without Rice],” Egwu said. “I didn’t see anyone in the locker room come to me and say, ‘Man, we’re done.’ ”

Coach John Groce prepared his players by showing them video clips from the stretch run of last season, when the offensively challenged Illini dug deep for their best basketball of the season, hanging in games with defense and hustle plays. Groce showed them highlights of hell-bent dives for loose balls and a sequence of charges taken. Perhaps that would explain the pair of charges Hill took in the early going against Maryland. He got off to a scuffling start at the offensive end, but those defensive stands got him — and his teammates — going.

“I thought our guys played like [last season] for a longer duration of time than in any of our previous 15 games,” Groce said.

Sophomore Jaylon Tate started for the first time at Illinois and matched his career high with 10 points. The point guard added four assists and only one turnover.The Illini shot poorly — not unexpected, without Rice’s 51.5 percent from the floor and 48.3 percent from long range — but Hill picked them up by going 9-for-18 overall and 4-for-7 from long range. He scored 16 in the second half in establishing himself as the team’s No. 1 option with Rice out.

“To be honest,” said Hill, “I’m probably going to shove that out of the way after this interview because we’ve got a big game [Sunday] at Nebraska.”

The Illini managed both to outrebound the Terrapins and to take care of the ball, committing only seven turnovers. Basically, they did everything Groce wanted to see from them and more, an auspicious beginning to what surely will be a challenging period without one of the top players in the conference.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg

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