CHAMPAIGN — Georgia Southern coach Mark Byington didn’t know how his Eagles were going to defend against Illinois senior guard Rayvonte Rice.

After 40 minutes of basketball on Friday night at the State Farm Center, Byington still didn’t have an answer for the former Champaign Centennial standout.

Rice scored a game-high 24 points, including eight in the final 6 minutes, 24 seconds to lead the Fighting Illini to a 80-71 victory in the season-opener.

“Ray Rice is a load,’’ Byington said. “I was nervous coming into the game and after the game, I still don’t know how to guard him. 

“We tried zone, we tried man and we tried to trap him.’’

Rice’s big shot of the night came with 50.5 seconds left in the contest when the senior buried a long-range 3-pointer just as the shot clock buzzer was sounding. It gave the Illini (1-0) a 10-point lead (76-66) and secured the team’s 16th consecutive victory in the season opener.

“Some guys practiced really well, and played really well,’’ Illinois coach John Groce said. “It doesn’t always happen that way , but most of the time it does. 

“You have to bring it every day. Every game matters. We have to grind every day. Ray Rice was an absolute monster in practice and he played that way.’’

Rice, who was the leading scorer a year ago for Illinois, picked up from where he left on last year. He was 8-of-12 from the field and 3-for-4 from 3-point range.

“He is so strong,’’ Byington said. “It seems like he is shooting the ball better. If he is shooting well, you can’t back up off of him. He is like a middle linebacker, he is build like Mike Singletary.’’

The biggest difference between the first half and the second half for Illinois was the Rice got quite of bit of help from his running mates.

The four guards in the Illinois lineup, Rice, Ahmad Stars, Aaron Cosby and Malcolm Hill, combined for 44 second-half points.

But the scoring was only part of the difference for the Illini.

“I didn’t think we were very tough in the first half,’’ said Groce, pointing out several statistical differences.

“We had eight turnovers in the first half, only in the second,’’ he added. ‘We had only one offensive rebound in the first half and we had eight in the second. I thought they just outhustled us in the first half.

“In the second half, I thought we competed and showed more grit. That’s what I talked about at halftime. The biggest thing was to be more competitive. more aggressive and nastier on defense.’’

Illinois turned 16 turnovers by Georgia Southern in 22 points, including a 9-2 advantage in the second half.

“I thought that was the biggest downfall for us was our turnovers,’’ Byington said.

In addition to Rice having 24 points, the Illini had three other players in double figures as Cosby had 16, Hill finished with 11 and Starks chipped in with 10.

Jelani Hewitt had the big game for Georgia Southern with 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.

Trent Wiedeman had 17 points and nine rebounds, while Angel Mattias added 12 points and seven rebounds.

The Illini are back in action on Sunday with a 5 p.m. contest at the State Farm Center against the Coppin State Eagles, who were playing the Oregon Ducks on Friday night.

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