LINCOLN, Neb. — After Illinois beat Penn State on Sunday to snap an eight-game losing streak with an altered starting lineup, there as hope among Illini fans that the team had found an answer. That feel-good moment was a blip.
The Illini still are searching after losing to Nebraska 67-58 Wednesday night for their ninth defeat in 10 games.
"It's real frustrating," center Nnanna Egwu said. "Not just now but it has happened throughout this losing run. We're always just right there. Sometimes that hurts even worse. To be honest, a little change here, a little change there, we'd have a whole different record."
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Instead the Illini (14-11, 3-9) are in last place in the Big Ten with little hope for the remainder of the season with four ranked opponents among their final six on the schedule.
While Rayvonte Rice scored 23 points on a hard-earned 7 of 17 shooting, no other Illini player broke double digits. It was a stark contrast to the Cornhuskers (13-10, 5-6), who are 11-1 at Pinnacle Bank Arena, their glistening new home.
Sophomore Shavon Shields, who had averaged nine points per Big Ten game, exploded for a career-high 33 points, making all 15 of his free throw attempts. Teammate Terran Petteway, the Huskers leading scorer, added 16 points on 6 of 14 shooting as Nebraska shot 44.2 percent.
"It was disappointing," coach John Groce said of the Illini's defense. "Shields was great off the bounce. They got in the lane a little too much and that led to the drawing of fouls."
The Illini had no similar one-two punch to go with Rice.
Groce again went with the starting lineup that featured freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill but it was less effective as Nunn scored only nine points, 10 less than his outing at Penn State. Hill had eight.
Starting point guard Tracy Abrams scored only three points and missed all four field goal attempts, his second straight game without a basket. While Egwu grabbed 12 rebounds, he added only four points.
Joseph Bertrand (five points) played only 12 minutes off the bench for a second straight game as Groce said he is more reliant now on playing with an extended roster. Jon Ekey also came off the bench for a second straight game and shot only 1 of 6 for three points.
But the Illini were more concerned with the slip in defense.
"We take pride in limiting (opponents) to what they normally get and get them where we want to get them," Egwu said. "It was a surprise for us to give them too many easy baskets and too many easy looks, and we fouled them too much. Our defense was not built like that."