ICYMI: Illinois vs. Nebraska
Feb. 27, 2014
By Lexi Shurilla, fightingillini.com staff writer
Illinois 60, Nebraska 49
Illinois faced off against the Nebraska Cornhuskers for the second time in two weeks Wednesday night. Fueled by a balanced attack, lock-down defense and tons of hustle, the Illini snapped a five-game home losing streak, while also ending Nebraska's five-game winning streak. The 60-49 Illini victory was the 899th Big Ten win in program history, which ties Purdue for the most all-time Big Ten conference wins.
"When you get ten guys contributing like that, I thought we did some really good things," Illinois head coach John Groce said. "We've talked all year that this is a team that needs everybody, and tonight we had everybody contributing. The result was a really complete game and a win. I'm happy for these guys because they've continued to fight."
Illinois shut down the Huskers with its defense, holding the Cornhuskers under 50 points for the first time this season. The Illini limited Nebraska to 35.7 percent shooting in the first half, including 0-of-8 from behind the arc, and the Huskers were only able to get three three-pointers to drop for the game (3-of-13). Illinois' defense has been impressive all season, especially as of late, as none of the Illini's last three opponents have reached 50 points.
"We take huge pride in that," Jon Ekey said of the team's defense. "That's one of the things all year we've been talking about, it's got to be defense for us. That's just one of those things, that every night we can be expected to do, just shut down what the other teams are trying to do to us. We take pride in it."
After committing seven turnovers and grabbing only one steal in the first half, the Illini took care of the ball the rest of the game, with only two turnovers and 10 steals in the second half. Illinois went on a 12-0 run starting at 12:32 in the second period, including a banked-in three by freshman Kendrick Nunn, and three minutes later pulled the lead to 13 (50-37) with 9:49 to play in the game.
Late in the game, one play in particular summed up the Illini effort against the Huskers. With the game already in hand with under two minutes to play, Rayvonte Rice deflected an NU pass high up into the air and well beyond the baseline, but Ekey wasn't about to let it go. He flew out of bounds, grabbed the ball in midair and shoveled to Nnanna Egwu at the last second before falling into the waiting arms of the Orange Krush. Ekey got pats on the back from his fellow students and Egwu gave a fist pump before heading up the court, knowing a victory was all but sealed.
"We made a lot of extra ordinary effort plays tonight," Groce said. "I thought our guys were really tuned into the game plan and really executed that well. Sometimes when you give that type of effort and you have that normal focus and concentration and you're playing the right way, with the right mindset...I thought our effort was, at times, inspiring."
Fresh off a 19-point performance against Minnesota last week that earned him Big Ten Freshman of the Week accolades, Kendrick Nunn came out as a leader again against the Cornhuskers, executing on both sides of the ball. He finished with a team-high 13 points, hitting 3-of-4 from three-point range. Combined with his 5-of-7 performance in the win at Minnesota, Nunn has hit eight of his last 11 three-pointers, locking in at over 72 percent. Nunn is also averaging 13.0 points per game over the past five games since entering the starting lineup.
Another freshman that entered the lineup with Nunn - Malcolm Hill - reached double figures for the third time in his career as an Illini, scoring 10 points, including two momentum-shifting three-pointers and making all four of his free throws. In all, the Illini hit nine three-pointers in the game, marking their most in a Big Ten game this season. Illinois shot an impressive 55.6 percent from three (5-of-9) in the second half to close out the win.
Coach Groce has continued to emphasize what his players contribute to the game that doesn't show up on the stat sheet, including being tough in the paint, crashing the boards and having quick and active hands picking pockets left and right. Illinois held a 16-5 advantage in second-chance points after grabbing 11 offensive rebounds compared to just three by Nebraska.
Seniors Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand, now coming off the bench, are feeling more comfortable in their new roles. Ekey finished with 8 points, going 3-of-5, and brought down six rebounds (four offensive), while Bertrand had six points and two rebounds.
"It just says a lot about the guys that we have," Ekey said. "The freshmen, the coaches, all the way through everyone on the staff, just have never given up. No matter what we were going through, everyone was always positive, trying to get better and working on things we knew we could get better at. No matter what the score was from the game before, we know it's a long season, so we just keep working every day."
This late in the season, Coach Groce says the team, especially the freshmen, are more complete than they were two months ago and is pleased with the effort and energy they continue to put in at practice and in games.
"I think just learning the system," Groce said of how the team has improved over the season. "It's the same system that we played and taught in October, but I just think we're better at it now. Repetition builds mastery, and I think that the repetition and hearing the same thing over and over again about how we cover things, and how we defend things, and positioning, and all of those different things, some of those things have started to become habits."