Rebels let their guard down, fall to Illinois

Another week, another guard putting on a scoring clinic at the Thomas & Mack Center against UNLV.

Seven days after Jahii Carson scored 40 points to help lead Arizona State to a 86-80 victory over the Rebels, it was Rayvonte Rice’s turn in the spotlight.

Rice, a 6-foot-4 transfer from Drake with a linebacker’s build, scored a game-high 25 points, including a driving layup with 28 seconds remaining that proved to be the game-winner, and also had 10 rebounds and four steals to help Illinois (6-0) rally for a 61-59 victory over the Runnin’ Rebels.

“We’re bitterly disappointed with the loss,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said after his team fell to 2-3. “We have a very frustrated locker room. We played hard, stayed together but came up a little bit short.”

Center Nnanna Egwu scored 12 points, including a pair of 3-pointers, while guard Joseph Bertrand added six points and six rebounds for the Illini. But with the score tied 59-59 and the game on the line, it was Rice who came through, taking a pass from guard Tracy Abrams, driving down the right side of the lane and finishing over Rebel forward and standout shot-blocker Khem Birch at the basket.

“I saw a wide open lane and I just went up and laid it in,” Rice said modestly.

Illinois coach John Groce saw the play as a whole lot more difficult than that, especially since the 6-foot-9 Birch, who had four blocks in the game, was closing fast.

“Tracy got the ball to Ray and kind of went with the hot hand, and Ray made a great drive and had a great finish,” Groce said. “One of the things I’ve always said about winning road games against good teams like UNLV tonight here, you’ve got to have big-time players make big-time plays. Ray Rice with 25 and 10, plus the game-winner, would probably qualify.

“Big-time players making big-time plays. He made a lot of them.”

UNLV called two timeouts to try to set a potential game-tying play, but guard Bryce Dejean-Jones was stopped by Rice and Abrams on his drive to the basket. The ball then went guard Kevin Olekaibe, who fired up an open 3-pointer from the right corner with a second to go but missed.

“We figured they’d come out and help,” Dave Rice said. “We spotted Kevin Olekaibe up in the corner. Bryce drove, they helped and they threw it to Kevin. He got a good look. Next time he’ll make that shot.”

Birch finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, Dejean-Jones scored 11 points and Olekaibe added 10 points, including two 3-pointers, to lead UNLV, which has already lost three games on its home court after going 18-3 at the Thomas & Mack Center last season.

The Runnin’ Rebels, thanks to a 11-0 run to end the half, led 39-29 at halftime. Illinois opened the second half with a 18-7 run to take a 47-46 lead, capped by a 3-pointer from the top of the key by Egwu, only the second trey of his career.

After UNLV pulled out to a 57-51 lead, Illinois rallied to tie it at 59 on a 3-pointer by forward Jon Ekey.

The Illini then had two chances to take the lead, but Rice was blocked by Birch on a drive to the basket, and Abrams failed to connect on an open 3-pointer from the top of the key with 1:11 left.

Dejean-Jones then took a long jumper that went in and out, and Birch lost control of the rebound.That set the stage for Rice, who drove the right side of the key and bounced in a layup with 28 seconds to go.

UNLV went scoreless over he final four minutes. Groce, afraid of sending the Rebels to the free throw line because UNLV was in the bonus – hold the chuckles Rebel fans – instructed his team to try defend without sending the Rebels to the line down the stretch. The strategy worked.

“We need to learn how to execute down the stretch,” Birch said. “I fell like we kind of panicked a little bit.”

UNLV returns to action on Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. when it hosts Tennessee-Martin.

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