CHAMPAIGN – Jon Ekey scored 16 of his game-high 19 in the second half as the Illinois Fighting Illini improved to 5-0 with a 77-53 victory over the Chicago State Cougars.
Ekey single-handedly fueled a 10-0 run for the Fighting Illini in the second half and he capped it with a spectacular one-handed slam off a missed shot by freshman Jaylon Tate.
“Jon made some plays and some shots that kind of catapulted us,’’ Illinois coach John Groce said.
The Illini went from a four-point lead (55-51) to a 65-51 advantage and it was part of a 22-2 run to end the game.
“It’s great that he did,’’ said Illinois senior Joseph Bertrand. “We definitely needed it.
“The tip dunk was crazy.’’
It’s the second straight 19-point game for Ekey, who came into this season averaging just 6.7 points a game in his three seasons at Illinois State, and his career-high was 22 against North Carolina-Wilmington in his freshman season.
“Different coaches, different systems,’’ said Ekey, when asked why he was doing so much better with the Illini than a year ago with the Redbirds. “I fit into this system a little better.’’
And while his scoring has been important, Ekey is averaging 10.6 points per game after having just two in his season debut, it’s not the only thing the graduate student has provided for the Fighting Illini.
“He’s on pace to have the highest defensive grade out that we’ve had,’’ Groce said. “He’s only been here through June. It’s great and it validates what we are trying to do.’’
Ekey is also one of three Illinois players averaging more than seven rebounds a game.
So did Groce think he was getting this type of player when he recruited him this summer?
“You really don’t know,’’ Groce said. “I knew he was a really good athlete vertically. I knew he was a great guy and he could shoot the cover off the ball.
“It’s hard to appreciate the intangibles. His basketball IQ is amazing. He can read a game plan and execute it near perfectly. You don’t know about that stuff until you coach a guy consistently.’’
The additions of Ekey and Rayvonte Rice, who had 12 points on Friday night, have been pivotal to the 5-0 start for Illinois.
And they have provided an experience factor that has helped in games like Friday night, when Chicago State came out with a completely different game plan than the Cougars (2-4) have employed in their first five games.
“You have to be ready, regardless,’’ Groce said. “All in all, I’m proud of the guys and the way we were able to grow and improve on the homestand.
“The older guys have done a good job with that. And now, they have be humble and hungry and we move forward.’’
The way Friday’s game started, it looked like Illinois was just going to cruise past Chicago State as the Illini opened with a 12-2 run.
But, the Cougars came back, closing within two points (23-21) with just over five minutes left in the first half.
“They held the ball and milked the shot clock,’’ said Groce, noting that Chicago State has been a up-tempo, full-court pressing team. “They had some guys that make plays.
“I thought that once we were able to get a few stops, we were able to force the tempo a little better.’’
The Illini ended the first half with a 10-5 run and they started the second half with a 11-2 scoring advantage.
“They found holes in our zone and took advantage of it,’’ said Chicago State coach Tracy Dildy. “Jon Ekey is a fifth-year guy, who knows how to play the game.’’
Dildy also pointed out that the Illini won the battle of the of boards as Illinois outrebounded Chicago State 39-20. Nnanna Egwu led the Illini with nine, while Bertrand had eight and Ekey finished with six.
“We’re challenged every day in practice about going hard on the boards,’’ Bertrand said. “Getting those offensive rebounds gets the team extra possessions.’’
The Illini outscored the Cougars 14-6 in second-chance points.
Joining Ekey, Bertrand (12) and Rice (12) in double figures for Illinois was senior guard Tracy Abrams with 12 points to go along with a game-high five assists.
Clarke Rosenberg came off the bench to lead the Cougars with 16 points, while Matt Ross had 13 for Chicago State.
Illinois will play its first road game of the year on Tuesday when the Fighting Illini travel to Las Vegas to play the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. Tipoff is set for 9:45 p.m. on Tuesday. That game will be televised by CBS Sports Network and it can be heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.
“We need this, we are going to go on the road and be challenged,’’ Groce said. “It will be a good opportunity for us.’’
The next home game for Illinois will be next Friday when the Illini host Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne in a 7 p.m. contest at the State Farm Center.