CHAMPAIGN – The day before Illinois faced its biggest game of this basketball season, Malcolm Hill tried to soft sell the absence of the team’s best player, Ray Rice.
“No one has to try and do a whole lot more,” Hill said. “Everyone just has to do their job.”
Hill must have been keeping secret what he had in store for the 11th-ranked Maryland Terrapins. Hill played the game of his life Wednesday night, scoring a career-high 28 points and igniting a 20-3 run to open the second half as Illinois upended Maryland 64-57 at the State Farm Center.
“I thought our effort was unbelievable,” Illini coach John Groce said. “I thought our effort was inspiring for the longest period of the year.”
Illinois answered the challenge to put the brakes on its 0-2 start in Big Ten play and do it without leading scorer and rebounder Ray Rice. After breaking his left hand Monday at practice, Rice underwent surgery earlier on Wednesday. He did not attend the game.
What he missed seeing in person was three teammates rallying big-time in his absence.
“This game was for Ray,” Egwu said.
Hill, who made nine of 18 shots, said this was his most aggressive game since scoring 40 points for Belleville East High School. He was simply the best player on the floor, playing 39 minutes and scoring 12 points in the take-charge 20-3 run to open the second half. It was a rush that wiped out Maryland’s 28-26 halftime edge and put Illinois in control, 46-31.
“We had no one to match up with Hill,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “At halftime I challenged my guys to guard him and obviously no one did that.”
Hill added seven rebounds.
“He was all over the glass,” Groce said. “He made big shots, big plays.”
Senior center Nnanna Egwu, who promised his teammates would fight when faced with Rice’s absence, was a dynamo on defense. He was in perpetual motion and finished one of his most complete games with 11 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots.
“Nnanna played like a senior who was hungry,” Groce said. “He had that look in his eye.”
The surprise starter was sophomore Jaylon Tate, who replaced Ahmad Starks at point guard for the first time this season. Tate equaled his career high with 10 points and had four assists and just one turnover in 31 minutes.
More than that, he provided as much leadership at the point guard position as Illinois has seen this season.
“Tate was really good,” Groce said. “He had earned the right to play more minutes based on how he’d practiced and how he played at Michigan. He should have played more at Ohio State.
“He had a great pulse. He has a gift to communicate and he makes guys better. He played really well.”
Turgeon said Tate had an immediate impact.
“They made the change at point guard and that was a really good switch for them,” the Maryland coach said. “Tate was great running the team.”
Illnois had to hold on amid a late barrage from Maryland, which hit three straight 3 pointers and three late free throws to make the Illini sweat.
But Starks, Tate and Hill made eight free throws without a miss to button down a victory that improves Illinois’ record to 11-5 overall, 1-2 in Big Ten play.
Maryland missed a chance to improve to 15-1, which would have been the best start in school history. The Terrapins are 14-2, 2-1.
Wednesday was Illinois’ only assignment inside the State Farm Center during a difficult five-game stretch to open Big Ten play. Now the Illini go back on the road and play at Nebraska at 7:30 p.m., Sunday.