Considering the opposition and the play of junior guard Rayvonte Rice, Illini fans might enjoy March, too. Rice, a 6-foot-4 transfer from Drake, scored a game-high 25 points, including a driving layup with 28 seconds remaining that proved to be the game-winner, to help Illinois rally for a 61-59 victory over the Runnin' Rebels at the Thomas & Mack Center. Rice also had 10 rebounds and four steals. Center Nnanna Egwu scored 12 points, hitting two 3-pointers, and guard Joseph Bertrand added six points and six rebounds for the Illini (6-0). With the score tied at 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 Rebels forward Khem Birch, a standout shot-blocker, 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 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 (2-3) called two timeouts to try to set a potential game-tying play, but guard Bryce Dejean-Jones was stopped 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," UNLV coach Dave Rice said. "We spotted Kevin Olekaibe up in the corner. Bryce drove, they helped and (we) 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 this season after going 18-3 at the Thomas & Mack Center last season. "Obviously a very disappointing loss for our team," Rice said. "We have a very frustrated locker room. We played hard, stayed together but came up a little bit short." The Runnin' Rebels, thanks to a 11-0 run to end the half, led 39-29 at halftime. Illinois opened the second half with an 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 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 the decisive layup. NOTES: UNLV F Roscoe Smith entered the game leading the nation in rebounding (16.3), almost a full three rebounds better than Kentucky's Julius Randle. Smith pulled down 13 boards Tuesday. ... Illinois improved to 14-0 in November under coach John Groce. ... UNLV 6-foot-9 junior F Khem Birch, who began his career at Pittsburgh, entered the game second in the nation in blocked shots with an average of 5.5 per game. He blocked four Illini shots. ... Illinois, which came into the game with a plus-14.6 rebound margin, finished with a 41-40 edge on the boards but had 15 offensive rebounds that led to a 19-8 advantage on second-chance points.
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