GAME NOTES: The Illinois Fighting Illini will try to continue their recent surge as they visit Littlejohn Coliseum for a second-round clash against the Clemson Tigers in the National Invitation Tournament.
The Fighting Illini notched their sixth victory in eight games on Wednesday as they overcame a 17-point deficit to defeat Boston University, 66-62, in the first round of the postseason tourney. The strong second-half effort marked the biggest Illinois comeback under coach John Groce, and the fifth time it came back from a double-digit deficit this season. The Illini shot an even 50 percent from the floor in the contest, and closed out the game on a 12-1 run.
Illinois leaned heavily on junior guard Rayvonte Rice versus Boston, as the Drake transfer tallied 28 points to go along with eight rebounds. Rice made good on 11-of-14 of his shots to establish a new career-high for made field goal attempts. Freshman guard Malcolm Hill also made his mark with 10 points and a career-best eight boards. Since the conclusion of the regular season, Rice is netting 17.3 ppg, while Tracy Abrams is averaging 13.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg and owns a 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. The Illini's success this season has come courtesy of their excellent defensive play, which has held the opposition to just 62.5 ppg.
This will be just the fifth meeting in history between these programs on the hardwood. Illinois edged Clemson, 76-74, on Dec. 2, 2009 when it last visited Littlejohn Coliseum for its third win in the all-time series.
All 11 of coach Brad Brownell's teams have ranked in the top-50 among Division I programs in scoring defense, and Clemson's allowance of just 58.2 ppg in 2013-14 ranked second in the ACC behind only league champion Virginia. For the first time in history, two different Tigers have recorded at least 60 blocked shots in the same season. Clemson set a pair of NIT records in its 78-66 win over Georgia State in the first round, as K.J. McDaniels tied the single-game record for blocks with five, and the team broke the single-game mark with nine total rejections. Sophomore center Landry Nnoko is second on the team with 60 blocks.
In addition to anchoring the defense versus GSU, McDaniels registered a double-double with 30 points and 14 rebounds. Damarcus Harrison contributed 17 points and six boards, and Jordan Roper 11 points and four assists off the bench for Clemson, which lost freshman Jaron Blossomgame to a bruised leg which will likely keep him out of action on Sunday. Harrison has posted seven double-doubles over his last nine games and hit on 46 percent of his shots from the floor during that stretch.
Clemson has won 14 of its 17 games at home this season and 10 NIT games in a row at Littlejohn Coliseum. Illinois has a combined record of 10-8 this season in road (6-6) and neutral-site (4-2) affairs.
The winner of this game advances to face either Robert Morris or Belmont in the next round.
The Illini need to get off to a good start in this one as it is very difficult to play catch up against Clemson. Both of these programs appear to be destined for next season's NCAA Tournament as neither side has a senior starter. Illinois could come away victorious if Rice manages to stay hot.
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