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Hot start pushes Illinois to Las Vegas title game

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Updated 10 months ago on
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LAS VEGAS — Illinois coach John Groce said getting games off to a strong start is a major emphasis for his squad.

A 30-8 lead after just 11 1/2 minutes meets that description nicely.

The Fighting Illini connected on five of their first six 3-point attempts while building the early 22-point lead en route to a 88-62 victory over Indiana State on Thursday afternoon in the semifinals of the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational at the Orleans Arena.

Senior guard Rayvonte Rice scored 21 points, grabbed seven rebounds and had five steals to lead Illinois (5-0), which will face Baylor or Memphis in Friday night’s championship game. The Bears and Tigers played the second semifinal Thursday night.

Sophomore guard Malcolm Hill (17 points), senior center Nnanna Egwu (10), junior guard Aaron Crosby (10) and sophomore guard Kendrick Nunn (10) also scored in double figures for the Illini. It was the fourth consecutive game in which at least five Illinois players finished with at least 10 points.

“I thought tonight for us, the start was really what dictated,” Groce said. “We got off to such a great start at both ends of the floor that I thought it sort of set the rules so to speak for the game.”

Indiana State coach Greg Lansing was a little more blunt.

“They came out and punched us right in the face and we really didn’t respond very well,” Lansing said. “Our effort and how we competed to start the game was not good at all.”

Illinois, which posted big point totals in consecutive wins over Coppin State (114-56) and Austin Peay (107-66) earlier this season, looked as if it might break the century mark again with its torrid start.

By the first media timeout, the Fighting Illini were already up 20-6, connecting on eight of their first nine shots from the floor, including four of four from 3-point range.

Illinois extended its lead to 37-12 on a Rice free throw with 4:13 to go in the half. Indiana State sank just four of its first 20 shots while also turning the ball over 10 times.

“I thought we had gotten off to good starts in two of our four games, and two of our four we didn’t,” Groce said. “Now we’re three for five, which is 60 percent. And where I went to high school, that’s a D-minus. I guess if it’s baseball, that’s a pretty good average. … But we’ve got to be locked in from the jump. I thought today we were.”

The Sycamores (3-2) trailed 43-24 early in the second half before Illinois went on a 17-6 run capped by two free throws by Rice, boosting the lead to 60-30. The Sycamores, despite the hot perimeter shooting of sophomore guard Grant Prusator, who was 4-for-7 from 3-point range and scored a career-high 17 points, never got closer than 17 points the rest of the way.

“We got taught a good lesson from what I believe is one of the top teams in the country,” Lansing said. “That’s a very talented team.”

Groce went out of his way afterward to praise the play of Hill, a 6-foot-6 forward who was 11-for-12 from the free-throw line and also grabbed eight rebounds and had two steals in 24 minutes of action.

“I thought Hill really jump-started us at both ends of the floor in the second half,” Groce said. “I thought it might have been the most complete game of his career.”

Illinois finished with a season-high 15 steals and outrebounded the Sycamores 46-33. The Illini shot just 42.4 percent from the floor but connected on nine of 20 3-point tries (45.0 percent).

“All in all, I thought our effort was good, and it gives us a chance to move into tomorrow night’s game here with a little bit of momentum,” Groce said. “I look forward to playing either Baylor or Memphis.”

Indiana State shot 36 percent from the floor, 37 percent (10-for-27) from 3-point range.

NOTES: Illinois came into the game ranked second in the nation in scoring offense (97.5). The Fighting Illini also were 12th in 3-point field goal percentage (47.3 percent). … Illinois improved to 20-0 in November under coach John Groce, the only team in the nation with an undefeated November

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