LAS VEGAS (AP) — Rayvonte Rice is making a name for himself in his young Illinois career.
With his Illini and UNLV tied with under a minute to play, Rice took a pass from Tracy Abrams, saw an opening in the lane and converted a driving layup that bounced in with 27 seconds remaining to give the Illini the lead.
He wasn’t done.
On UNLV’s potential tying or winning possession, Rice and teammate Jon Ekey knocked the ball away from a driving Bryce Dejean-Jones. The ball rolled toward the right corner and the Rebels’ Kevin Olekaibe.
But Olekaibe missed a potentially game-winning 3-pointer with two seconds left and undefeated Illinois hung on for a 61-59 road victory in front of a noisy 13,747 at the Thomas & Mack Center Tuesday night.
“I knew I just had to be aggressive,” said Rice, a junior transfer from Drake, about his game-winning drive. “There was a wide-open lane. We looked at this as a big game. They have guys averaging 16 rebounds a game.”
In just his fifth game at Illinois, Rice also grabbed a career high 10 rebounds to lead the Illini (6-0), who held UNLV scoreless the final 4:16 and passed their first big test of the season.
“Ray was option one (on the final play),” Illinois coach John Groce said. “Tracy found Ray and went with the hot hand. Winning on the road, big-time players have to make big-time plays.”
Nnanna Egwu, who made two 3-pointers, added 12 points for the winners.
“This was a grinder,” he said. “We had five freshman contribute. We had to overcome foul trouble. We made big shots at the end.”
Khem Birch led the Rebels (2-3) with 12 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocks. Dejean-Jones added 11 points, while Olekaibe had 10.
“The game plan (on our last play) was to go ball screen because they were hedging hard on the ball screen,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice, whose team has had a disappointing start with all five games at home. “We figured they’d come to help. (Olekaibe) got a good look, but next time he’ll make that shot. (Our) program has a proud tradition and we know what kind of basketball team we have to be.”
UNLV’s Roscoe Smith, the nation’s leading rebounder averaging 16.3 per game before Thursday, had 13 boards.
“They definitely took advantage of our mistakes on defense,” Smith said. “I felt like at points we were playing their style of game. We have to regroup as fast as possible and just clear our heads.”
Trailing 39-29 at halftime, the Illini scored the second half’s first five points and eventually took a 51-49 lead.
But the Rebels went on an 8-0 run before Ekey’s 3-pointer from the right corner tied it at 59 with 2:21 to go. The Rebels could not score during the final four-plus minutes.
“The key was keeping them off the free-throw line,” Groce said. “They were in the bonus in the final four minutes. We had to make them score on field goal attempts.”
Rice hit his career high with 10:08 left in the game with two free throws. His previous high was 22 points in hisIllinois debut against Alabama State.
There were six ties and eight lead changes before the Rebels, who were 13 of 16 from the free-throw line, pulled away late in the first half. The game ended 11 ties and 13 lead changes.
In their first five games, the Illini had only trailed for 3:18.
Illinois lead the all-time series 3-1. UNLV won the last meeting on Dec. 17, 2011 at the United Center in Chicago. Prior, the teams met in the previous season during the NCAA Tournament’s Second Round.