ICYMI: Illinois vs. Chicago State
Nov. 23, 2013
By Lexi Shurilla, fightingillini.com staff writer
Illinois 77, Chicago State 53
Ekey Saves the Day
After jumping out to a 12-2 over Chicago State in the opening minutes on Saturday night, the Illini faced a battle from a scrappy Cougar team before Jon Ekey caught fire and sparked Illinois down the stretch for a 77-53 win.
Chicago State was right on the heels of the Illini going into the second half with Illinois only up 33-26. But it was a whole new Illinois team ready to kick off the second half. The Illini turned the tempo up a notch to outplay the Cougars with a fast-paced offense and improved shooting. Still, the Illini led by just four, 55-51, midway through the second half.
Enter Ekey, the graduate student. For the second game in a row, Ekey stepped up and made plays when his team needed it the most, getting it done from behind the arc and in the paint.
Coming off a 5-of-7 three-point shooting performance against Bradley on Sunday, Ekey again hit five threes to bail out the Illini against the lingering Chicago State team. After the Cougars pulled within four (55-51) with eight minutes left in the ball game, Ekey got his spark started with a dunk 30 seconds later, and didn't look back.
After grabbing the defensive rebound from a missed Cougar three on the next possession, Ekey followed up his dunk with a pair of three-pointers, scoring eight straight points all within 1:23. But he wasn't done yet. Ekey kept the crowd on its feet with a put-back dunk with 5:16 left in the game. His personal 10-0 scoring run in a 2:14 stretch gave the Illini a 65-51 lead that they wouldn't relinquish. During the incredible stretch, Ekey went 4-of-4 from the field, 2-of-2 from the 3-point line and grabbed five (two offensive) rebounds.
"It's great that he did that, we definitely needed it at that point in the game," Joseph Bertrand said. "He kind of turned the switch on and hit a couple threes, that tip dunk was crazy. I think that really gave us a boost in the second half so it was great that he did it."
Within the last eight minutes Ekey helped Illinois finish the game with a 22-2 run over the Cougars. He finished with 19 points for the second straight game after totaling 15 points in his first three games combined. Ekey is 12-of-19 (.632) from the 3-point line in the last three games after starting the season 1-of-8 (.125) from deep.
"We're pretty confident," Bertrand said about his teammates stepping up when needed. "We have a lot of players that can do different things, and a lot of players that go off on different nights. I think we're so dangerous like that, every game is different."
Not only can Ekey shoot, but he has a strong defensive presence and versatility that Illinois head coach John Groce, "Can't put a price on."
There's no question that Ekey, a fifth-year transfer from Illinois State, is thriving in Groce's system.
"Different coaches, different systems," Ekey said. "These coaches play a little bit differently, which I fit into a little bit better than the system they have over there [at Illinois State.] It's great at this level to be able to do that, it's one of those things that the coaches have been talking about ever since I got on campus. That's why they recruited me when I left over there. It's what they've been talking about to me every day, going out there, taking the open ones and don't pass up shots. Just been a work in progress that's kind of accumulated."
"You hope for that," Groce said of Ekey coming in. "I've been saying that the whole time that he can shoot the ball. I want him to keep shooting the ball. Obviously, he's got a gift with that. He's a very good rebounder. I've said it over and over again that he's got a high IQ. He picked up two positions quickly for a first year guy and it shows you how smart he is. He plays to win, he's a great teammate. He was voted by his peers and coaches after being here only since June to be a captain. I could go on and on. He's a big, big part of our team and he's going to continue to be so."