ATLANTA - Daniel Miller hadn’t scored since a little over two minutes remained in the first half when he posted up Nnanna Egwu late in Tuesday’s game against Illinois. Miller hit the biggest bucket of the night, though, draining the go-ahead shot as Georgia Tech pulled off a huge comeback and defeated Illinois 67-64 in the Big 10/ACC Challenge at McCamish Pavilion.
Tech (6-3) trailed by 12 points at the nine-minute mark, but got plenty of big baskets from Marcus Georges-Hunt and Robert Carter Jr. to rally and defeat Illinois for the first time since the regional semifinals of the 1985 NCAA Tournament.
While Illinois (7-1) went nearly eight minutes without a point, Tech’s 12-0 run - 10 of the points came from Georges-Hunt and Carter Jr. - tied the game at 60-60 on Georges-Hunt’s quick first move to the basket and lay up, the last of the sophomore guard’s 20 points, at the 1:48 mark.
“Our two sophomores were exceptional today and we need that on a daily basis,” Tech coach Brian Gregory said of Carter Jr. and Georges-Hunt.
Egwu had a three-point play and Tracy Abrams hit 1-of-2 free throws to give the Illini a 64-60 cushion. But Carter Jr., a 6-8 forward who just missed a double-double with a team-high 21 points and nine rebounds, knocked down a 3-pointer from the top of the key and after Egwu threw away a pass, Miller converted the lay up to give Tech its first lead since early in the second half.
Rayvonte Rice, who led all scorers with 24 points, gave up the ball and Joseph Bertrand missed a potential go-ahead 3-pointer with six seconds left. Carter Jr. rebounded and calmly hit two free throws before Abrams’ desperation 3-pointer was well short.
“I thought (Rice) made a great play on that last one. Joe…is very very good from the corners, he was wide open, he teed it up with the wind at his back, he just missed it,” said Illinois coach John Groce.
Rice came into the game leading the Illini in scoring, and showed why during a dominant second-half stretch.
The guard, in his first season at the Champagne, Illinois school after transferring from Drake and sitting out a season, scored 10 consecutive Illinois points during a nearly three-minute stretch.
First, Rice gave Illinois a 47-44 lead with a personal 8-0 run, highlighted by a 3-pointer and a steal and dunk.
Rice hit another field goal and Bertrand had a nice reverse lay up, then Tech got to within 51-48 on a pair of free throws from Trae Golden. Rice wasn’t fazed. The redshirt-junior followed a three-point play with a steal and two free throws, and Kendrick Nunn had a lay up and Egwu threw down a dunk off an alley-oop as a 21-4 Illinois run made it a 60-48 game with 9:11 left.
“Rice gives (Illinois) an extra dimension,” Gregory said.
That’s when Tech got started on its comeback as Georges-Hunt, who had passed up shots earlier in the half, hit a 3-pointer in the corner to make it a 60-51 game.
Miller knocked down his second foul line jumper in the first six and a half minutes to pull Tech to within 10-9 before Illinois hit consecutive 3-pointers and got a block from Maverick Morgan, who assisted on Malcolm Hill’s lay up at the other end for a 18-10 lead that forced a Tech time out.
It was a three-point game after Carter Jr. scored five quick points, but the Illini hit two more 3-pointers, including Bertrand’s second of the half, to go back up 26-17.
Again, Tech answered, and this time took its first lead into the locker room.
Georges-Hunt had seven of his nine first-half points over the final five minutes, and Carter Jr. polished off a 10-point half with a 3-pointer (off a feed from Georges-Hunt) and a dunk to help the Yellow Jackets end the half on a 19-7 spurt for a 36-33 cushion at the break.
“We had a nine point lead at 26-17 and we had, I thought, some really bad offensive possessions,” said Groce, in his second season at Illinois. “We did not close the first half like we needed to close the first half. When you play in a game like this one…and it was a pretty high level game, you have to have both effort and execution. And we just did not have enough execution.”
“Just proud of our guys,” said Gregory. “That’s the way I envision it, playing with that type of toughness, with that type of intensity and energy. We got a ways to go, but if you give that type of effort, play with that type of intensity, then you got a shot.”