ICYMI: Illinois vs. Valparaiso
Nov. 14, 2013
By Lexi Shurilla, fightingillini.com staff writer
Grinding out a Win
After graduate student Jon Ekey ended the first half with a buzzer-beating three-pointer to put the Illini up 33-25, it looked like the Orange and Blue might take that momentum and run away. But Valparaiso fought back during the second half, putting the Fighting Illini on their toes down the stretch.
"Absolutely loved our effort and energy tonight," Illinois head coach John Groce said. "We didn't play pretty, but we played the right way. I loved the fact that we got punched in the mouth on an 8-0 run and got right back with an 11-1 run. That's good for this team to understand because that's going to happen and you've got to have poise, and I thought we were really poised."
Following a dunk by senior Joseph Bertrand at the 8:30 mark of the second half, the Illini lead was 10 points. The Crusaders didn't go away quietly, going on an 8-0 run to cut the Illinois lead to 49-47 with 6:43 left.
Clinging to a two-point lead with its 25-game non-conference home winning streak on the line, Illinois responded by finishing the game on a 15-5 run to improve to 3-0 for the 14th straight season.
A jumper by junior Tracy Abrams made the lead 51-47 with 4:41 left, then Ekey pulled down one of his 15 boards, starting a possession that ended with junior Rayvonte Rice converting an old-fashioned three-point play - putting Illinois up 54-47. Illinois won the rebounding battle 49-36, led by Ekey, who has a new career-high with his 15 boards, including eight on the offensive glass.
"I've always tried to use my athleticism to try and get in there and get around guys, either tipping it out or grabbing it myself," Ekey said. "I've always tried to, just today I found a lot of the holes there and was able to get up there and tip them out or grab them. It's something the coaches have been telling me every day in practice. I just found my way in there a lot today."
"He's so valuable," Groce said of Ekey. "Tonight I played him at three, four and five in the 40 minutes of the game. He can switch up ball-screen coverage in the game and be able to think and adjust. Obviously, he's a really good shooter. I have unbelievable confidence in his ability to make shots. The decisions that he makes, he takes care of the ball. He does a lot of things that show up on the stat sheet but he also does a lot of things that don't. I'm so thankful that we have him."
Valpo added a free-throw, but Abrams came back with another jumper to put the Illini up by eight with 3:28 remaining. Bertrand followed suit a minute and a half later to give the Illini their 10-point lead back with under two minutes to play. Illinois showed its resiliency when a game is close, and closed out the game with a thunderous put-back dunk by Rice, an exclamation point on the 64-52 win.
UI overcame its third-lowest shooting performance (31.8 percent) under Coach Groce thanks to stingy defense that held the Crusaders to just 32.7 percent (17-of-52) from the field.
Rice came through again with a clutch performance to lead the Orange and Blue in scoring for the second time in three games with a game-high 18 points. Along with Rice, Bertrand (14 points) and junior Nnanna Egwu (10 points) reached double figures for the third game in a row, while Abrams (12 points) was the fourth Illini in double digits.
"The Rev" returns to Illinois
Illini great Roger Powell, Jr., who is now in his third season as an assistant coach at Valparaiso, was on the opposing bench tonight. Powell played at Illinois from 2002-05, helping the Illini to three Big Ten titles, an NCAA title game appearance in 2005 and 114 wins during his career. He made this trip back without his old crew - Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head to name a few - but said it still feels like home.
"Last time I was back, I was here for the alumni game and it was awesome being back," Powell said. "Today was fun, to be here for a college game. Obviously, I wish we would have won. But with that being said, now I can go back to cheering for Illinois."
Powell totaled 1,178 points with the Illini and is currently ranked 32nd on the school's all-time scoring list. He still has his alma mater in his heart and wishes them well as they continue to build the program back to what it was when he was in school, winning Big Ten championships and getting to the Final Four. For now, he's coaching on the opposing side, but he knows which team he's cheering for.
"It's a lot different because I can't go out there and play," Powell said of being a coach. "You've got to rely on our guys to win and play. Any time I get to be in this gym (State Farm Center), you know I have a lot of memories, but it's kind of weird trying to coach against my school. To be honest, I still bleed orange and blue."