CHAMPAIGN — Illinois coach John Groce has a simple definition of his type of player.
“We want to be gentlemen off the court, and nasty, tough dudes on the court,’’ he said. “I think these guys exemplify that.’’
And through just two games of the Big Ten season, his Fighting Illini has used that toughness to get off to 2-0 league record for the first time since 2011 as they delivered a knockout blow to the Penn State Nittany Lions, 75-55, on Saturday afternoon at the State Farm Center.
Not so ironically, it was an open-handed punch by Penn State’s D.J. Newbill to the head of Illinois freshman Kendrick Nunn with 8 minutes, 38 seconds left in the contest that defined the toughness in the Illinois program.
The Fighting Illini (13-2 overall, 2-0 in the Big Ten) responded with a 18-6 run to seal the deal against the Nittany Lions, who fall to 9-6 overall and 0-2 in the league.
“Basically, just staying together, not letting things like that get into our head,’’ said Illinois senior Jon Ekey, who finished with 11 points and eight rebounds. “We are there for each other, no matter where we are. We’ve got each other backs, no matter what.’’
According to Groce, the key leader during that skirmish was junior guard Tracy Abrams.
“That was Abrams a lot and the other guys chipping in,’’ he said. “Tracy has been through a lot of wars. He really controlled that huddle with his leadership, talking about poise and composure. He talked about finishing the game the right way.
“He has grown by leaps and bounds, not only non-verbally but also vocally.’’
Being able to handle that difficult situation is something that Groce has stated since his first day with the Illini.
“We try to be as unflappable as we can be, but we understand that you get thrown curve balls in life,’’ he said. “You get thrown curve balls thrown at you in a possession, in a game, in a season — we want to make sure that we handle those with great toughness and great togetherness.
“We don’t get too high or too low. I think this year team has done a really good job with that.’’
Another example of handling adversity came from Ekey, who had missed 10 consecutive 3-pointers before knocking down one in the first half against Penn State. The Illinois State transfer would go on to make three 3-pointers in the contest.
“It happens. I’ve been through that before. I wasn’t too worried about it,’’ said Ekey, who was seen shooting early on Saturday at the State Farm Center. “My teammates and coaches were telling to keep shooting.’’
The biggest sign of toughness from Illinois came on the defensive end as they held Newbill and Tim Frazier to just 17 points, on 5-of-19 shooting and just one assist. The duo came into Saturday’s game averaging 36 points and more than nine assists per game.
“We just tried to limit their touches and do what we could do to stop them,’’ said Illinois junior Rayvonte Rice, who was a big part of the Fighting Illini defensive effort. Rice also led the Illini in scoring with 15 points.
Groce admitted that earlier battles against Missouri, Oregon and other teams helped prepare his squad for the challenge of the Penn State offensive backcourt.
“We have played against some really talented guards this year,’’ he said. “Our guys did a good job on those two guys. Their team is really good offensively. They were right up there with all the teams played. Our guys really responded to that challenge today.’’
Penn State coach Pat Chambers admitted that his team couldn’t find creases or edges against the Illinois defense.
But, he also thought that the Fighting Illini got away with a few things during the game.
“We don’t get this at home,’’ Chambers yelled to official Earl Walton late in the second half. “We’re on the road 18 games.’’
When asked about what he saw in the incident between Newbill and Nunn, Chambers said he had to watch the film.
“D.J. thought he got bumped. That’s why he did whatever he did,’’ Chambers said. “I don’t know what he did. I will watch it on the way home.
“But, he has to keep his composure. We need him out there. we need him on the floor. With him not on the floor, you see how we played.’’
The victory for Illinois came on the day when the school honored the 1988-89 Flyin’ Illini. That squad led by coach Lou Henson reached the Final Four, before falling to Michigan in the semifinals.
“It was great that our guys got to see how close that group is still today — 25 years later,’’ Groce said. “Those guys really love Illinois and you could tell that at halftime when they were cheering on our guys. We represent those guys and it’s privilege to be a part of this university.’’
After postgame handshakes with Penn State, the Illinois players went over and shook hands with the Flyin Illini. Just another sign that this group of players understand their importance to the Fighting Illini nation.
Up next for Illinois is its first Big Ten road challenge as the Fighting Illini will travel to Madison on Wednesday to take on the undefeated Wisconsin Badgers.