CHAMPAIGN – After sitting out a full season, Champaign native Rayvonte Rice didn’t disappoint the home crowd in his season debut with the Illinois Fighting Illini on Friday night.
Rice scored a team-high 22 points and pulled down nine rebounds as Illinois defeated Alabama State 80-63 in the season opener for both teams at the State Farm Center.
“My job is to be aggressive and do what I can, do what my team needs me to do,’’ said Rice, a standout from Champaign Centennial and a transfer from Drake. “My teammates put me in great situations to score the ball tonight.’’
But, didn’t it mean a little more playing his first official game at the former Assembly Hall?
“No, I’ve gotten used to it,’’ said Rice. “I’ve played two games already.’’
In two exhibition games against McKendree and Northwood, Rice had scored 29 points, but on Friday night his 22 equal the most for an Illini debut since Brandon Paul had 22 against Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville in the 2009 season.
“He’s aggressive,’’ said Illinois junior Nnanna Egwu about Rice. “He goes to the basket and attacks the rim. He helps all of us.’’
And Rice is much better at getting to the rim now, because of the 30 pounds that he lost while sitting out last year, waiting to become eligible for the Illini.
“He lost a whole person,’’ Illinois coach John Groce said.
Playing now at 6-foot-4 inches and 235 pounds, Rice seemingly was able to get to the rim at will against Alabama State and when the junior didn’t score, he got himself to the free-throw line. Rice was an impressive 9-of-10 at the charity stripe.
“I want him to be aggressive,’’ Groce said. “I think he’s at his best when he is aggressive and catches the ball in a stance.