CHAMPAIGN — A year ago, the Illinois men’s basketball team wore bracelets with TNT on them.
That stood for “Toughness and Togetherness.”
On Sunday afternoon at the State Farm Center, the Fighting Illini revived those thoughts with a 81-55 victory over the Bradley Braves.
“I really, really liked our toughness and our togetherness,’’ Illinois coach John Groce said. “I thought we were really ready to play.
“I loved our effort, and our attitude was off the charts.’’
And Illinois (4-0) set the tone in the early moments of Sunday’s game as junior center Nnanna Egwu had a pair of blocks in the first nine minutes of the game.
Bradley, who shot a dismal 28.1 percent (9-of-32) in the first half, basically stopped trying to get into the lane and the Braves (3-1) settled for majority perimeter shots.
“I thought they played really physical and tough — especially in the lane,’’ Bradley coach Geno Ford said. “We were soft, it’s hard to come up with a way to spin it. We have to get tougher. I think the game was won in the lane.’’
And it wasn’t just on the defensive end that the Fighting Illini were winning the battle in the paint as they made 17 of their 28 field goals inside of the lane, including a pair of spectacular dunks from Rayvonte Rice.
Additionally, Illinois had 19 offensive rebounds which led directly to 13 second-chance points and the Fighting Illini outrebounded the Braves 49-25.
“The backboard was the entire story,’’ Ford said. “They were way more physical, and they were tougher to get to the balls.’’
Groce appreciated the compliments from the Bradley coach, who is both a good friend of the Illinois staff and the brother to Illinois assistant coach Dustin Ford.
“Tough and smart certainly beats soft and stupid,’’ Groce said. “In over 19 years, I’ve seen a little bit of all four of those qualities. Tonight, I thought we were pretty tough and I thought we had some intelligence and purpose behind what we were doing. I thought guys were pretty locked in. They had a little edge to them. I thought our toughness was good.’’
But the second-year coach of the Fighting Illini was quick to point out that this was just one game.
“They should enjoy this one... but it’s not like the toughness is automatically there again,’’ he said. “That’s a choice we make every day between our eyes, whether we are going to be mentally and physically tough. Today, we made that choice. Hopefully, we will continue to make that choice.’’
Making that choice on Sunday was evident in the defense played by the Fighting Illini against the Braves and their high-scoring guard Walt Lemon Jr., who finished with 12 points, but he was 4-of-15 from the field and half of his points came in the final minutes.
“The coaches prepared a great game plan for us,’’ said Illinois junior guard Tracy Abrams, who shouldered most of the responsibility on Lemon Jr. “Guys were aggressive on him. Obviously, he is a good player, but we just stuck to our game plan.’’
Abrams, who had 12 points including a pair of 3-pointers early in the second half, was also the team’s leading rebounder with eight.
“Every day, coach challenges us to rebound, go in there and dig some out,’’ Abrams said. “Today, we exemplified that pretty well. It’s something we have to keep doing.’’
Actually, all five Illinois starters had at least five rebounds and the Illini guards finished with 28 — three more than the entire Bradley team.
“That was embarrassing,” Ford said. “I give Illinois a lot of credit. They were tough and we were soft.’’
Another area where Illinois was at its best against Bradley was with its ball movement. The Fighting Illini had a season-high 19 assists as freshman Jaylon Tate came off the bench to dish out a game-high six and Rice, who had 13 points, added five helpers to the cause.
“I think we played our best game of the year,’’ Groce said.
Leading the Illini in scoring was graduate senior Jon Ekey with 19 points, and he was 5-of-7 from 3-point range.
“It was just one of those days,” Ekey said. “I felt good, felt comfortable out there, and they kept feeding me the ball.”
And the fact that Ekey, a transfer from Illinois State, was playing his seventh game at home also helped, but the key might have been his coach’s beliefs.
“We want to be fearless,’’ Groce said. “If you watch our golf program, Mike Small does an unbelievable job with those kids’ body language, and the fact that every time they took a shot, they are fearless.
“Mike is a unbelievable coach and person. I’ve tried to learn from successful coaches like Mike. We talked to our guys about being fearless. When fear comes, we attack it.’’
Sunday’s game was played just hours after an outbreak of tornadoes had ripped through central Illinois.
“It really puts things into perspective doesn’t it?’’ said Ford.
One of the hardest hit areas was East Peoria and Washington, just minutes away from the Bradley University campus.
“This is a game,’’ Ford said. “But, what those folks are going through, that’s real.’’
:Our prayers are with those who lost their homes or were injured today,’’ said Groce, pointing the communities of Gifford and Hoopeston in addition to East Peoria and Washington.
With the victory, Illinois is 4-0 to start the season for the third consecutive year, and the Fighting Illini are now 12-0 in November games under Groce.
This was also the 16th meeting between Illinois and Bradley, with the Illini leading the all-time series 13-3 but the Braves won the last contest 72-68 during the 2009 season in Las Vegas.
Both teams are back in action on Friday, as Illinois will host Chicago State in a 8 p.m. contest at the State Farm Center, while Bradley travels to Tempe, Ariz., to face the Arizona State Sun Devils