CHAMPAIGN — Saturday was not the first time Malcolm Hill has rescued Illinois when it faced grim news.
He was called on Jan. 7, two days after leading scorer Rayvonte Rice broke his hand, and Hill’s 28 points led the Illini to an upset of 11th-ranked Maryland.
Hill’s alarm sounded again Saturday, this time after the team was informed Rice and Aaron Cosby were being suspended indefinitely for an unspecified violation of team rules.
Hill answered the call again, this time with 27 points and a game-winning drive through a double-team that lifted Illinois past Penn State 60-58 at the State Farm Center.
Hill’s tie-breaking basket came with 4.4 seconds to go, giving Penn State one final chance to tie the game or win with a 3-pointer.
D.J. Newbill, the leading scorer in the Big Ten, rushed the ball end-to-end and took it directly at the basket, where Illini center Nnanna Egwu was waiting.
Newbill tried to power the ball to the hole, but Egwu’s stood his ground and stretched high, the refs ignored any contact. Newbill’s shot missed, preserving Illinois’ victory.
Hill admitted his physical finish that put Illinois ahead was the kind of play he probably couldn’t have made as a freshman, when he was 20 pounds lighter and not nearly as strong.
“I had it at the top of the key and they double-teamed me,” Hill said, explaining his decisive play. “I went to fight through the double-team and saw Kendrick (Nunn) in the corner. I thought they might leave him to come at me, but when they stayed with him I used my body and put it in the basket.”
Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said Hill was a difficult assignment the entire game.
“We tried to double him a few times,” Chamber said. “He did a really good job of getting to the basket. Give him credit. He’s a really good player and only a sophomore. He’s going to be a big-time player for the next couple of years.”
Chambers said Hill’s physical growth is now paying off.
“He’s bigger and stronger and you can see that in his shoulders and arms,” Chambers said. “He’s playing with great confidence. It’s Malcolm’s time to step up.”
Groce wouldn’t say what rules violation resulted in the suspensions he gave to Rice and Cosby but he said he hopes they will rejoin the team soon.
“I only have one rule in our program,” he said. “Nobody embarrasses the University of Illinois, yourself or your family. When you do, there are consequences.
“We have high standards and we expect them to be adhered to. I make that very, very clear every year and frequently in between.”
Groce said the players will continue to practice with the team until they are reinstated.
But Hill said the rest of the team was already used to playing without them. Illinois is 4-3 since Rice was injured and during that stretch Hill is averaging 18.1 points.
It wasn’t just Hill’s offense that bailed out the Illini (14-8, 4-5). He was the primary defender on Newbill.
“I wouldn’t say it brightened my day,” Hill said when Groce told him his defensive assignment. “I just wanted to step up to the challenge. He’s a really good scorer and I was just trying to keep in front of him.”
Hill did his part, especially late. After hitting a 3-pointer with 7:37 to play, Newbill never scored again.
Furthermore, it was Hill’s pass that set up Nnanna Egwu’s hook shot with 58 seconds to play that tied the game 58-58.
“Malcolm was a monster at both ends,” Groce said.
After Egwu scored his only basket, Penn State called timeout with 51.6 seconds to go. After the timeout, Penn State’s Devin Foster was called for an offensive foul, turning the ball back to Illinois with 33.9 seconds to go.
That set up Hill’s physical drive to the basket.
Illinois had help from its bench with Ahmad Starks scoring nine points, Maverick Morgan six and a put-back basket from Austin Colbert.
It’s a good thing the bench delivered, because other than Hill, the other four starters were a combined 4 of 28 including 2-for-14 from Nunn.
“A very atypical shooting game from Nunn, but he had four assists and five steals,” Groce pointed out.
Newbill scored 20 and freshman guard Shep Garner added 14 for Penn State (14-8, 2-7).
Illinois can get back to .500 in the league with a victory in Tuesday’s 8:30 p.m. home game against Rutgers.