The Yellow Jackets finally showed they could overcome Rice with better team play.
Georgia Tech closed the game with a 19-4 run to rally from a 12-point deficit and beat Illinois 67-64 on Tuesday night in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, giving the Illini their first loss.
Rice scored 24 points, including a personal 8-0 run in the second half that gave Illinois the lead.
Asked if he had advice for his players on how to guard Rice during the hot streak, Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said, “Prayers.”
“At that point, you can’t stop him. You can only hope to contain him,” Gregory said. “He was good, because he made a couple of tough ones.”
Georgia Tech’s Marcus Georges-Hunt said Rice is “a great player” but couldn’t beat the Yellow Jackets alone.
“He couldn’t beat us one-on-five, so we kept battling,” Georges-Hunt said. “We told each other let’s stick together.”
Illinois (7-1) led 60-48 before Georgia Tech (6-3) began its comeback. Georges-Hunt’s drive with 1:48 remaining tied the game at 60-all. Daniel Miller’s layup with 21 seconds remaining gave Georgia Tech a 65-64 lead.
Illinois forward Joseph Bertrand, who had 10 points, missed a jumper and Georgia Tech’s Robert Carter Jr. sank two free throws with 3 seconds remaining.
“It was amazing, just being able to put everything together when we needed it,” said Carter, who led Georgia Tech with 21 points and nine rebounds.
Georges-Hunt had 20 points.
Georgia Tech recovered from back-to-back losses to Mississippi and St. John’s in New York. With their comeback against the Illini, the Yellow Jackets showed coach Brian Gregory the grit he said he wants to be a trademark of his team.
“When I think of Georgia Tech and the way I want our team to play, that’s the way I envision it, that kind of toughness,” Gregory said.
Georgia Tech became the first team to score more than 63 points against the Illini this season.
“They never gave up,” said Rice of the Yellow Jackets. “They competed the whole 40 minutes. They were down 12. They fought, and give them credit, they were the better team tonight.”
The Yellow Jackets led 36-33 at halftime after trailing by nine points in the first half.
Rice scored eight unanswered points early in the second half as the Illini reclaimed the lead. He started the run with a free throw before hitting a 3-pointer, and then scoring off his steal. A 9-0 run midway through the second half gave the Illini their biggest lead.
Illinois coach John Groce said the Illini couldn’t overcome breakdowns at the end of each half.
“They out-executed us at the end of both halves,” Groce said.
“I give them a lot of credit. They made some plays and didn’t flinch when they were down 26-17. Then we come right back and have a 12-point lead and repeat: It happens again. ... I thought our attitude was great, body language was great and our toughness was better ... but I thought our execution was absolutely pathetic. It was awful. Out of timeouts, it was bad. Bad passing. Bad catching, not the toughness about us to execute what we need to execute.”
Georgia Tech avenged a loss at Illinois in last year’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Bertrand said it was a wasted opportunity for the Illini.
“It’s really disappointing,” Bertrand said. “We had the game and kind of let it slip through our fingers.”
Rice, a junior transfer from Drake, is the first player to score in double figures in his first eight games at Illinois since Kiwane Garris opened his career with 10 straight games of 10 or more points in the 1993-94 season.
The Illini made 5 of their first 10 3-pointers and led 26-17 before Georges-Hunt led the Yellow Jackets to a 9-0 run to tie the game. Georgia Tech missed its first five 3-pointers before making its final three long-distance attempts.
Solomon Poole’s 3-pointer gave the Yellow Jackets their first lead at 31-28, and Carter added a 3 and a dunk for the halftime lead.