Boston University had been up by as much as 17 points against Illinois Wednesday, pummeling a Big Ten team that just last week had hung with Michigan, before losing by 1 point, in the conference tournament.
Joe Jones’s Terriers squad had been doing everything right in the first half.
They were knocking down open shots and sinking the difficult ones, too. They pressed hard in the first half, forcing turnovers and creating transition points, as they rumbled on a 30-8 run.
But in the second half, the Fighting Illini started to come alive as they steadily chipped away at the 9-point halftime deficit, spearheaded by Rayvonte Rice and his 20 second-half points.
Finally, the Terriers succumbed to the pressure.
Rice scored 7 of his team’s last 9 points, including the go-ahead free throws with 1:27 to play, as Illinois beat BU, 66-62, in a first-round NIT matchup at Agganis Arena.
BU finished 24-11, and fell to 0-6 all time in NIT games. Illinois (20-14) advances to the second round, where it will play Clemson.
“They made plays down the stretch and we didn’t,” Jones said. “To win the game, we were going to have to get some stops. They made plays to win and we didn’t and that was the telling tale. We had some mental breakdowns down the stretch and gave up easy baskets at times.”
Rice finished with 28 points and eight rebounds.
Senior D.J. Irving led BU with 17 points and sophomore Maurice Watson Jr. had 7 points and 12 assists.
The Fighting Illini charge started immediately after intermission when they made five of their first seven field goal attempts and continued into the final minutes.
Illinois shot 14 for 24 (58.3 percent) in the second half, improving from its abysmal 9-of-22 performance over the opening 20 minutes.
The Illinois comeback began when Tracy Abrams (5 points) hit a 3-pointer to trim the deficit to 61-57.
With 2:07 to play, Rice came up with a steal, finished the layup, and converted the and-one free throw to make it 61-60.
Then, with 1:27 to play, Rice hit a pair of free throws to give Illinois a 62-61 lead — its first since 7-6 with 15:04 to play in the first half.
With 57 seconds left, Watson turned the ball over and Rice made another basket to stretch Illinois’s lead to 64-61.
“My teammates just did a great job finding me and putting me in position to score,” Rice said. “We were just trying to be tough on the ball . . . trying to make it to the next game.”
Irving went to the line and hit one of two free throws, and with 27 seconds left Nnanna Egwu missed the front-end of a one-and-one for Illinois.
With 13 seconds left, BU called a timeout and senior forward Dom Morris (10 points) missed a layup while drawing contact, but no foul was called.
Egwu secured the rebound and was fouled. He knocked down the free throws to ice the win.
“I just saw [Morris] go up and it looked like there was some contact, but I don’t think we lost the game because of that,” Jones said.
In the first half, the Terriers turned to a 2-3 zone and a three-quarter-court press to pressure Illinois.
Once Rice and his mates started hitting shots, Jones tried defending with a mix of zone and man-to-man rotations.
“I thought we just didn’t stay within the principles of what we were trying to do when we played man, we gave up some easy baskets,” Jones said.
Irving, who played 31 minutes, was tasked with guarding Rice.
“It was difficult. He’s a strong kid and he’s pretty skilled as well,” Irving said. “I had my hands full the whole night. He went off for those guys down the stretch and took control of the game.”
The Terriers entered halftime with a 33-24 lead, making seven of their 11 field goals from beyond the arc.
Illinois took a 5-0 lead in the opening minutes before BU erupted on a 30-8 run.
Morris made a pair of free throws with 15:04 to play in the first half, pulling the Terriers within 7-6 and sparking the offensive breakout.
John Papale hit a 3-pointer and Irving knocked down a pair of free throws, giving BU an 11-7 lead.
Kendrick Nunn hit a jumper for the Fighting Illini before the Terriers rattled off 11 straight points — including three 3-pointers.Anthony Gulizia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gulizia_a