Toughness & Togetherness

It took toughness and togetherness for Illinois to beat UNLV. Much the same will be needed in order to handle the quick turnaround during Thanksgiving weekend.

CHAMPAIGN – Quick turnarounds in college basketball can set the stage for disaster.

That's why Illinois coach John Groce approached his veterans shortly after Tuesday's 61-59 win over UNLV and let them know.

There's a game Friday – against IPFW (Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne). There's a holiday Thursday – Thanksgiving. There's a goal to keep in the forefront – winning and getting better.

"We've got to have a level of maturity approaching the next game," Groce said.

He reminded his players about last season's West Coast trip to Gonzaga. The Illini won that one and then had to play Norfolk State three days later.

The Illini scraped by with a late lay-up from D.J. Richardson and timely defense down the stretch.

"I don't think over the course of the 40 minutes our energy, our focus, our effort level was where it's been," Groce said at the time.

The team recapped the UNLV win and started prepping for IPFW Wednesday before flying home. There will be a practice and then a team dinner Thursday. With everything that's going on, Groce let his players know what's at stake.

"Obviously the way college basketball is, if you follow scores, anybody can beat anybody on a given night. You have to be ready to play the game."

It might take a little bit of toughness and togetherness.

Those two words have been consistently thrown around the Illinois program since Groce took over.

They comprised the team motto last season. It's still important in his second year. It was on display Tuesday in the Thomas & Mack Center.

"I thought we were really tough," Groce said. "I thought we were really together. We were for 40 minutes."

The Illini outrebounded the Runnin' Rebels 41-40 and overcame a 10-point halftime deficit in their first road test of the season. According to Groce, it was poise, effort and those same words, toughness and togetherness, which tipped the balance in Illinois' favor.

"I just thought we had a real good way about us," Groce said.

Rayvonte Rice scored 25 points, including the game-winning bucket with 27 seconds left, had 10 rebounds and four steals.

"I think he just did what he does," Groce said. "We tried to put him in a position to be successful. He took advantage of it."

Of course, the game offered areas for improvement. Groce wasn't 100 percent happy with his team's execution, particularly on inbounds plays and defensive rotations.

"All in all a really great win, but we still have a long way to go, especially with the detail things."

WHAT HAPPENED: Ray Rice scored 25 points and hit the game winner to lead the Illini past UNLV.

WHAT'S NEXT: The Illini host IPFW Friday in the State Farm Center at 7 p.m. CT

WHO TO WATCH: Rice. Something savvy Vegas vets know – always ride the hot hand. The junior leads the team with 17.2 points per game and is grabbing over six rebounds per. He's shooting 47 percent from the field and has hit 20 of his 26 free throws.

Luis Jacobo. The senior forward missed the season's first three games, where IPFW lost twice by a total of two points. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Floridian returned to help the Mastodons to four straight wins, averaging a team-best 16.3 points and 6.5 rebounds.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories