College Sports

East grad Malcolm Hill helps Illinois beat Missouri — again

Illinois guard Malcolm Hill, a Belleville East graduate, drives to the basketball during Wednesday’s game against Missouri at the Scottrade Center in the annual Braggin’ Rights game. See a gallery of photographs at bnd.com.
Illinois guard Malcolm Hill, a Belleville East graduate, drives to the basketball during Wednesday’s game against Missouri at the Scottrade Center in the annual Braggin’ Rights game. See a gallery of photographs at bnd.com. Special to the News-Democrat

Malcolm Hill made it four in a row Wednesday night.

Hill, a 2013 graduate of Belleville East, led all scorers with 21 points and also grabbed five rebounds as Illinois pulled away from Missouri 75-66 in the annual Braggin’ Rights game. The 21 points matched the total Hill scored in the 2015 game against the Tigers.

The 6-foot-6 Hill was 6-for-12 from the field, including 2-for-4 on 3-pointers and 7-for-10 from the free-throw line, powering the Illini (10-3) to their sixth consecutive win.

“Not too many people can say they went 4-0 against Missouri in the Braggin’ Rights game,” Hill said. “It’s a tough game to win. Each year, it came down to the end. It’s just awesome.”

Several of Hill’s relatives and friends were among the 12,409 fans at Scottrade Center. Hill’s parents, Malcolm Sr. and Machanda, were there. Hill’s longtime coach with the Southwestern Illinois Jets AAU team, Patrick Smith, also attended.

That, however, was only scratching the surface.

“I’m grateful that I had teammates that let me have some tickets,” Hill said. “I also had some people that bought some tickets to support (me). They saw me play at Belleville East and always have a chance to come see me this game. I had about 15 people come to see me. I saw Javon (Pickett) and the 618 crew people down there, too.

“I always appreciate the support that I have each and every day, each and every game. I always have some type of support at each game. I’m appreciative of that.”

Pickett, a senior at Belleville East, has signed with Illinois and will follow in Hill’s big footsteps next season. East St. Louis senior Jeremiah Tilmon also will join the Illini next year.

Hill showed all facets of his game. He took the ball to the basket, elevated and shot over defenders and scored on some tough turnaround jumpers.

“I’m just happy we got the win, went 4-0 (against Missouri) and have won six in a row,” Hill said. “My 21 points probably wouldn’t be talked about if we had lost.”

Years from now, when Hill reflects on his college career, he expressed confidence that the Illini’s success against Missouri will be one of the highlights.

Illinois won 65-64 in Hill’s freshman season, 62-59 in his sophomore year and 68-63 last season. The nine-point victory Wednesday matched the 2012 game, which was the most-recent time both programs were ranked in the Top 25.

“I used to come to these games just to see the environment, the physicality,” Hill said. “Me being a skinny freshman and then about 190 (pounds) my senior year, I thought there was no way I could be able to hang with these guys. But to go 4-0 and play well — except for me freshman season when I played about three minutes — it’s awesome.

“I can talk about it with my little brothers (Clayton and Anderson), my little sister (Paige), my dad ... and my mom. I think it’s awesome I can talk about this for the rest of my life.”

Things weren’t always so awesome for Hill.

Former Illinois coach Bruce Weber, to whom Hill committed, was fired during Hill’s junior year in high school. Hill honored his commitment, then went through ups and downs as a freshman.

“I remember those days like it was yesterday, honestly,” Hill said. “I remember going to the gym late at night, trying to get better. (I remember) talking on the phone, crying to my mom, (saying), ‘I don’t even know if I’m good enough to play at this level.’ I was playing against grown men like Joe (Bertrand), Ray (Rice) and (Jon) Ekey. They were like fifth-year seniors and I was a little 17-year-old.

“But I’m a firm believer in sticking with the process. I put in a lot of hours in the gym. The support I’ve had from the coaching staff has been awesome because even when I doubted myself, they told me that I would be fine. They always believed in me. ... I always wanted to play for my home state. Coach (John) Groce has given me a great opportunities here.”

Hill acknowledged times when he would shoot around by himself instead of hanging around with friends who were enjoying the social side of college.

“I know what I came to school for,” said Hill, who is majoring in media and cinema studies. “I told myself I was going to make sure I get my degree and make sure I turn out to be the best basketball player I can possibly be. I don’t want to have any regrets.

“It’s good to have your fun every now and then, but I think the most important thing is to remember why you’re going to school. I envisioned this when I was a high schooler, hoping I could be one of the better players on the team. But remembering why I came to school, I think that’s the biggest thing. And I kept that love and passion for the game.”

Hill is one of 50 players in the country under consideration for the Naismith Trophy. He said individual accolades are nice, but only within the framework of the team.

He is pleased with the progress the Illini have made, but points out that they still haven’t qualified for the NCAA Tournament during his career.

“Winning is the biggest part,” Hill said. “I’ve never been to the NCAA Tournament. The biggest way of getting there is taking one game at a time.”

Hill will be at his home in Fairview Heights on Thursday and Friday, then rejoin the team Saturday for practice. The Illini open Big Ten play Tuesday at Maryland.

“I told people I had two days off,” Hill said. “They’re like, ‘Are you serious? That’s awful.’ It’s part of the process. Hopefully, next year I won’t have any Christmas break at all.”

That’s when Hill hopes to be playing in the NBA.

“That’s what I’m aiming for,” he said.

David Wilhelm: 618-239-2665, @DavidMWilhelm

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