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.
“Ray is one of those guys that wants to be unselfish. I want him to be aggressive – that’s his role on this team.’’
Rice was one of seven Illinois players making that debuts on Friday night. All seven scored at least two points, six of the seven had a rebound and five of them contributed an assist.
“Tonight, we played all 11 guys. We played all 11 in the first half and all of those guys made contributions,’’ Groce said. “I thought everyone made at least a play or two or more to help us win.”
“It’s going take that mindset of doing it ‘by committee’ for this team to reach its potential.’’
And while the newcomers played roles in the victory, it was the older players that really set the tone for the Illini (1-0).
Egwu, who had just 14 points and 13 rebounds in the exhibition wins for Illinois, recorded his second career double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
“Honestly, rebounds; I try to make sure that I get double digits in every game,’’ said Egwu about his goals for a game. “In certain situations, they are going to come to you. It will be different every game, but the mindset is get double digits in rebounds for every game.’’
Senior Joseph Bertrand almost had a double-double with 14 points and eight rebounds, while Tracy Abrams had nine points, five rebounds and three assists.
“For us to play consistently, especially here early, our veterans have to be consistent,’’ Groce said. “I thought they practiced that way the last two days and they played that way tonight.
“All in all, I loved our effort. I loved our energy. I loved our togetherness. And I thought until the last eight minutes or so, we played with toughness.’’
The Fighting Illini easily won the battle of the boards, outrebounding the Hornets 52-28 and Illinois had 22 second-chance points to just two for Alabama State (0-1).
But, the Illini also had 15 turnovers and they were just 4-of-20 behind the 3-point arc.
“We have some things that we have to improve upon, we didn’t finish the game like we would have liked to,’’ Groce said.
Jamel Waters scored a game-high 27 points to lead Alabama State in scoring and he was the only Hornet to reach double figures.
Up next for Illinois is another home contest on Sunday against Jacksonville State. Tipoff is set for 5 p.m. at the State Farm Center.
Before the game, the Illini honored long-time official Ed Hightower, who is planning on retiring after this season. Illinois Athletics Director Mike Thomas presented Hightower with commemorative basketball.