Illinois returned to their own version of the "friendly confines" of the State Farm Center on Wednesday and defeated Maryland 64-57. Malcolm Hill in particular was sensational, finishing with 28 points and 7 rebounds.
But with one of the key players in Rice out, Illinois rose to the occasion to rally against a hot Maryland squad and played some blue-collar basketball and garnered the win.
In the Illini's previous two Big Ten games against Michigan and Ohio State, second half implosions doomed the Illini, but after starting the second half on Wednesday on a 20-3 run, the orange and blue made a statement with their play and took another step forward against a talented Terps team.
In addition to Hill, Illinois senior Nnanna Egwu finished with 11 points and 9 rebounds. But his greatest impact doesn't even go on a stat sheet. Egwu was sensational all game on the defensive end, guarding all positions and recording four blocks in the process.
Illinois trailed 28-26 at halftime, but contrary to previous games, the Illini turned up the intensity in the second half and outscored the Terrapins 38-29 in the second half to secure the win.
Perhaps one of the unsung heroes of the game was sophomore point guard Jaylon Tate, who cracked double-digits with 10 points and notched four assists to just one turnover in his first career start at Illinois. Especially after senior Ahmad Starks picked up two quick fouls in the first half, Tate proved to be calm and collected and ran the team well when called upon.
After a regrettable 20 turnovers against Ohio State, the Illini were much more careful with the ball on Wednesday night, committing only 7 turnovers on the night.
The win comes at a crucial time for Illinois. Following a crushing second-half collapse at Michigan and an embarrassing second half at Ohio State, the Illini then lost top senior Rayvonte Rice with a broken left hand. On the same day he underwent surgery, the Illini gave Rice one of the best therapies possible in defeating a ranked Maryland team.
Illinois' home stand, however, was as brief as it gets as the Illini now head back on to the road for their next two games against Nebraska and Northwestern. Nebraska has talent, but has struggled lately. However, the Illini have struggled in the past couple of years in Lincoln.
Can the Illini rally in the absence of their star and build upon the momentum of a big win against Maryland? Nebraska is a gritty team and will be a solid follow-up test for the Illini as Big Ten play deepens.