CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois didn't play quite as rough as it did in its last home game, a 57-55 escape against Indiana Purdue-Fort Worth on Nov. 29, but the Illini still have some ragged edges in their game.
Tuesday, John Groce's club had to hold off a late charge against Dartmouth for a 72-65 win in Illinois' last nonconference home game of the season.
Rayvonte Rice scored 13 points, including a 3-pointer that helped put Illinois up by double digits late. Jon Ekey also hit a big 3 late in the game as part of his 11 points. Nnanna Egwu and Joseph Bertrand added 11 points each as well, and freshman Malcolm Hill chipped in 10 in a balanced attack by the Illini (9-1).
Dartmouth (3-4) was led by 17 points from both Gabas Maldunas and Connor Boehm and 14 from Eli Harrison. Boehm and Maldunas also grabbed nine rebounds each.
Illinois was outrebounded by Dartmouth, 33-27, but the Illini offset that deficit by shooting 52 percent from the field.
Boehm (6-feet, 7-inches) and Maldunas (6-9) gave the Illini frontcourt of Egwu and Ekey fits most of the night. Egwu (6-11) and Ekey (6-7) combined for just seven rebounds.
"We let it into the post too easily, but they also played very well," Groce said. "Boehm played really well. He's an Illinois kid and probably wanted to play well, but I was really impressed by Maldunas. He drove the ball really well to the basket.
Egwu added the Illini have to be more mature in game preparation, not just for big-name opponents, but also for teams with mediocre records.
"There is a lot of maturity involved in these type of games," Egwu said. "We have to prepare ourselves for this. We have to get our bodies and minds ready to play every game."
Dartmouth coach Paul Cormier was encouraged by the play of his big men, which had been inconsistent.
"If we are going to be successful in our league, we have to have Connor and Gabas playing together as well as they played today," Cormier said. "They came out and did a good job playing against a Big Ten school as good as Illinois.
"We just didn't have enough firepower to come up with two, three, four stops in a row. They have a lot of answers."
Rice's 3-pointer put the Illini up 11 with just more than four minutes to go, and another 3 by Ekey pushed the lead to 14 with 2 minutes, 46 seconds left, but Dartmouth's Boehm hit a layup, Harrison hit two 3-pointers, and Alex Mitola added a layup to cut the lead to just five, 67-62, with 25 seconds to go.
"We've got to have some better play and close the game out by our older guys," Groce said. "They know that."
Groce credited Kendrick Nunn, Maverick Morgan, Jaylon Tate and Hill for their perseverance in the win.
"Without them, I don't think we win this game," Groce said. "They were ready to go tonight."
Hill livened the crowd in the first half when he drove to the basket just before slipping a pass behind the back of Dartmouth's John Golden. Egwu was waiting and laid the ball up as he was fouled. He made the free throw just before Hill thrilled again on the next possession. Hill hit a long 3-pointer from the right wing. He hit another 3 to give the Illini a 37-25 lead near the end of the first half. Though out-rebounded in the first half, Illinois shot the ball well enough to build a 39-27 lead at the break.
Boehm and Maldunas kept the Big Green within striking distance in the first half with eight points each from the blocks. Illinois had trouble defending the Dartmouth post players all night.
"Especially in the first half, they were more physical and gave themselves some second chance opportunities," Egwu said of the play of Dartmouth's bigs. "They made some tough shots, and they played really well."