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Malcolm Hill scores 27, saves day as Illini top Penn State

CHAMPAIGN — There were games this time last season — pretty much all of January and into February, in fact — when Illinois’ Malcolm Hill simply couldn’t keep himself on the floor. Players play players, Illini coach John Groce likes to say, and then-freshman Hill clearly lacked the confidence and decisiveness in his actions to command much of a role.

What a difference a year makes. What a difference the ongoing absence of team scoring and rebounding leader Rayvonte Rice makes. What a difference the opportunity — the need — for the versatile Hill and his 6-6, 230-pound body to crash through any barriers and lead these Illini makes.

Hill was magnificent in Saturday’s 60-58 victory over Penn State. That was true throughout a meat grinder of a game in which he scored 27 points — one off his career high — and shot a sparkling 10-for-15 from the field while his teammates uglied it up to the tune of 10-for-38 (26.3 percent). And it was never truer than on the Illini’s final possession, when Hill lowered his shoulder and made like a runaway freight train for the basket, taking on two defenders and laying in the winner with 4.4 seconds to go.

“I was just thinking, ‘Finish at the rim as strong as you can,’ ” Hill said.

Playing without veteran guards Rice and Aaron Cosby — suspended indefinitely by Groce prior to the Penn State game for violating unspecified team rules — Illinois needed someone, anyone, to step forward. Answering the bell, not surprisingly, was Hill, who has averaged 21 points over his last three games and nearly 18 over the seven Rice has missed. Hill assisted on Nnanna Egwu’s game-tying basket with just under a minute to play and helped hold Big Ten scoring leader D.J. Newbill (20 points) scoreless for nearly eight minutes down the stretch.

“Malcolm was a monster, I thought, for the most part, at both ends,” Groce said.

The Illini (14-8, 4-5 Big Ten) will have a chance to move to .500 in league play when Rutgers visits on Tuesday. Get to .500 and it’s a new ballgame as far as the NCAA Tournament is concerned. Of course, that ballgame will be a whole lot easier to play if Rice and Cosby, who have a combined 28 starts this season, are in the mix. Without them, the Illini have a frighteningly thin rotation, although they are 4-3 in seven games since Rice broke his left hand and 2-1 since Cosby sustained a detached retina in his left eye.

Groce wouldn’t elaborate on the reasons for their suspensions, though he did confirm that both would’ve been available to return to the floor against the Nittany Lions.

“I only have one rule in our program. That’s not to embarrass the program, the University of Illinois and your family,” Groce said.

Penn State (14-8, 2-7) nearly won despite committing 19 turnovers while handing out a meager four assists. The Illini had 13 assists to go with their 13 turnovers — not great numbers by any stretch of the imagination, but good enough to keep them in this often unsightly affair. In the end, they made the difficult plays at both ends to finish it.

“That’s what we have to do,” Hill said. “We shouldn’t be credited for playing hard. That’s what we should be known for.”

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg