- Associated Press - Saturday, February 14, 2015

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - While Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice sat idle with a broken hand and a suspension, a funny thing happened to his team. It learned to play without its leading rebounder and scorer.

And it won without him, too, going 6-3. But at least through one game, Rice and the Illini (17-8, 7-5 Big Ten) answered the question how the team would do after his return with two words: Just fine.

“I had great peace of mind because our guys competed their tails off,” coach John Groce said after Thursday’s win over Michigan.

The overtime victory pushed Illinois into the middle of the Big Ten standings, tied for sixth with Indiana.

The Illini have also forced their way back into the postseason discussion. With conference games left at Wisconsin, Iowa and Purdue and at home against Michigan State, Northwestern and Nebraska, getting to 20 wins before the conference tournament is possible.

The Illinois team that was all but buried before it came back to beat Michigan is not the team that Rice left when he broke his left hand the first week of January.

That team would have looked to him for its points as the clock ticked down. He was averaging 17.2 points a game when he hurt his hand and, at the time, no one else on the roster was close.

But over that nine-game stretch, including three straight wins following Rice’s Jan. 31 suspension for a team-rules violation that Groce won’t discuss, Illinois turned the keys over to sophomores Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. They’ve both been double-figure scorers in Rice’s absence, and each turned in at least one dominant scoring game.

It was Nunn’s turn against Michigan, leading Illinois with 21 points and he had three assists. And he showed a little veteran wisdom.

The Illini couldn’t hit anything in the game’s opening minutes, and struggled to make shots much of the night. At halftime they were shooting 30 percent from the field and Nunn was 2 for 6.

But he hit on four of his last five shots, including a pair of jumpers in the game’s final 2:06 to bring the Illini back from a five-point deficit to the 50-50 tie they took to overtime.

“We just keep shooting,” he said. “Stay poised and get it done on the defensive side and it’ll even out.”

Rice was visibly rusty Thursday, missing on five of his seven shots. But when Illinois needed him late, Rice was there.

The second of Nunn’s jumpers, the 3-pointer that tied it up, followed a big, powerful rebound from Rice. He emphatically pulled the ball down after a miss by Spike Albrecht, locked it up tight with both arms and, with a satisfied smile on his face, yelled to no one in particular “Let’s go!”

The game, at that point, was tied, but effectively over. Illinois outscored the stunned Wolverines 14-2 from that point on.

“I thought he played the right way,” Groce said about Rice, who wasn’t made available to reporters after the game. “I thought he tried to fit in and help us win, and boy did he do that.”

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