Illinois shot its way to a 5-0 start, averaging 96 points per game with its collection of capable scorers all over the floor.
With the offense stuck in neutral on Friday night, the Illini found out they can win with their defense, too.
Illinois held Baylor to just one field goal over the first seven minutes of the second half to take control of the game on its way to a 62-54 victory in the championship game of the Las Vegas Invitational at Orleans Arena.
“At the end of the day, our defense won it. I told the guys in the locker room, as sexy as our offense has been lately, to win a game like that shows the type of team we have the potential to be,” said John Groce, who improved to 21-0 in November as coach at Illinois. “You have to win sometimes in some different ways, and I was proud of our guys that we were able to do that.”
Baylor, which was limited to 33.3 percent from the field, saw a 25-21 halftime lead quickly evaporate as the Illini went on an 8-0 run out of the break and never trailed again.
Senior guard Rayvonte Rice was the catalyst for the Illinois offense, as usual, spurring the rally with a layup and a 3-pointer.
Rice finished with 17 points, seven rebounds and three steals. In all, Illinois forced 15 turnovers.
“It just all started with defense,” said Rice, who was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
“We’re a defensive team. That’s our identity, and that’s what coach emphasizes every day is that it all starts on defense. We believe that, and we’re 10 toes in.”
Baylor showed life with a 7-0 run to cut the Illini lead to 47-44 with 5:55 left in the game, but Illinois had an answer.
Austin Colbert, who didn’t play in the first half, put back an offensive rebound for his only basket of the game to stop the surge.
After Illinois forced a turnover, Malcolm Hill knocked down a 3-pointer from the wing to extend the lead back to 52-44.
Baylor once again got within three at 52-49, but Hill had another answer with a 3-point play with 2:32 left. Hill equaled Rice with 17 points for the Illini.
The Bears jumped out quickly as Illinois had difficulty solving their zone defense early in the game.
Baylor led 7-0 only to see the lead disappear as Illinois clamped down on defense and started attacking the rim instead of trying to shoot over the zone.
The teams traded leads six times in the first half.
“We talked about that it was just like another Big Ten game,” Rice said. “The way our conference is, the score is going to be low sometimes. Everybody scouts you and knows what you want to do. They came out and threw the first punch, and we answered.”
Baylor got 11 points and 15 rebounds from Rico Gathers in the loss. Taurean Prince added 11 points. Findlay Prep product Al Freeman had nine points and three rebounds for the Bears.
In other action on the final day of the Las Vegas Invitational, Memphis got 19 points and eight rebounds from Shaq Goodwin in a 72-62 win over Indiana State.
Also, Stephen F. Austin beat Austin Peay 83-62, and Brown held off Prairie View A&M 81-71.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.