CHAMPAIGN — Illinois Jon Ekey started and ended the first half with a 3-pointer, but that wasn’t his biggest contribution on Wednesday night.
The fifth-year senior pulled down a career-high 15 rebounds — including eight offensive rebounds, but again that wasn’t his biggest contribution for the Fighting Illini.
So what did Illinois coach John Groce think was Ekey’s biggest contribution in the 64-52 win over Valparaiso before 13,504 at the State Farm Center?
It was everything that he did for the Fighting Illini.
“He does a lot of things that show up on the stat sheet, obviously when you see that 15,’’ said Groce, noting that Ekey’s 15 rebounds is the most for an Illinois player in the past two seasons. “But, he does a lot of things that don’t. It’s very reminiscent of (Sam) McLaurin for the intangible perspective.
“I’m so thankful that we have him.’’
And what exactly does the transfer from Illinois State bring to this year’s Fighting Illini squad?
“I played him at the 3-4-5 positions within the 40 minutes. He can switch up ball screen coverages — being able to think and adjust,’’ Groce said. “Obviously he is a really good shooter. We will continue to see it moving forward, he hasn’t even shot the ball like he has shot it in practice. I have an unbelievable confidence in his ability to make shots, and the decisions he makes.
“He takes care of the ball. He knows our defensive schemes inside and out. He gets extra rebounds for our team, gets us extra possessions.’’
And while Ekey wasn’t able to finish any of his offensive rebounds into points, Illinois turned 18 offensive rebounds in 11 second-chance points, including a pair of slam dunk tip-ins from Rayvonte Rice, who had a game-high 18 points, and Joseph Bertrand, who had 14 points.
“I told Ray that he saved Tracy (Abrams), because Tracy took an early shot there with the lead,’’ said Groce as Illinois was holding a 58-48 lead with just under a minute remaining. “You need to tell Tracy that you saved him with that play right there.’’
That was one of the baskets for Illinois (3-0) during a 15-5 run over the final 6 minutes and 39 seconds. Abrams had made a pair of 1-handed floaters during that stretch and Rice had seven of his 18 during that stretch.
“I thought Illinois made some nice plays down the stretch and a couple guys really stepped up for them,’’ said Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew. “Rice can score in a variety of ways. He is a very physical, he can score inside. He is very quick and able to get around guys also. And we’ve seen film where he made a couple 3s, when he does that, he is an extremely tough matchup.’’
The Crusaders (2-1) made things interesting for the Illini with an 8-0 run during the second half as Valparaiso pulled within 49-47 on a 3-pointer by Bobby Capobianco with 6:39 left. That was as close as they would get in the second half.
“I was really proud of my guys for their effort and attitude,’’ Groce said. “I love the fact that we got punched in the mouth with an 8-0 run as they pulled within two and then we went back on a 11-1 run.
“I thought our defense turned it up a notch.’’
Groce compared it to how Illinois played in the NCAA Tournament a year ago, beating Colorado in the second round.
“I absolutely loved our effort and energy from 1 to 11,’’ he said. “Even the guys that are sitting out this year, we’re great on the bench.
“I thought we played the right way, even if we didn’t play pretty.’’
One of most critical stretches for Illinois came in the final minute of the first half.
The Fighting Illini went from a 3-point lead (28-25) to a 33-25 halftime advantage with two free throws by Malcolm Hill and a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Ekey.
“I thought our guys did a tremendous job with end of half execution,’’ Groce said. “They had the ball, we forced a timeout, we switched defenses and subbed and then we force a turnover.
“Then we go down, the ball gets knocked out of bounds. We execute the out-of-bounds play. It was one of the plays that we work on. Tracy did a great job. The first option was covered and Jon was option 2. (Abrams) had great poise, he didn’t panic. We were fortunate that Jon made the shot. I thought that was a big momentum swing.’’
Illinois had four guys in double figures as Rice had a game-high 18, followed by Bertrand’s 14, Abrams with 12 and Nnanna Egwu had 10.
Jordan Coleman led the Crusaders with 15, while LaVonte Dority chipped in with 12.
Next up for the Fighting Illini is a 5 p.m. contest on Sunday against the Bradley Braves at the State Farm Center.