CHAMPAIGN – Someone had to come away from Assembly Hall without a perfect record Sunday night, and Illinois’ refusal to let Eastern Kentucky be that team kept their perfect season in tact. The Illini finished the 2012 portion of their home schedule with a 66-53 win over the Colonels, improving to 12-0 on the season.
The win was anything but easy for No. 10 Illinois, as the team matched its season high with 20 turnovers. It was the will of the Illini that helped them overcome EKU (9-1), coach John Groce said.
“I was really, really proud of our effort,” he said after the game. “We had great energy, we played with toughness, we had a nastiness about us on the defensive end for the full 40 minutes…I thought it was great.”
The hosts showed more urgency early in the game than in previous home contests, but EKU’s effort to turn over the Illini kept them off-balance. The Illinois defense held up, however, and with five minutes gone Brandon Paul drove the lane and dished to Sam McLaurin, whose dunk put Illinois ahead, 9-3.
The defense was strong for Illinois all game. EKU came into the game shooting 49.5 percent from the field (13th in the nation), but the Illini limited it to 30 percent shooting in the first half. Illinois also won the rebounding battle (42-23) and came up with nine blocks, four from Nnanna Egwu.
“Egwu was all over the place defensively. His stat line doesn’t do him justice…he was really locked in, as were most of our guys,” Groce said.
The Colonels’ 1-3-1 zone defense was also impressive on Sunday. EKU came into the game second in the nation at forcing turnovers and used that ability to keep Illinois from getting into a rhythm. The Illini were able to maintain a lead, but unable to crack the zone and pull away from the visitors.
Turnovers, particularly offensive fouls, became more troublesome for Illinois as the first half wore on. Midway through the first the Illini had racked up nine turnovers, three on offensive fouls. Those errors allowed EKU to close the gap, 17-15, with just under eight minutes remaining.
“They got in passing lanes, they were man conscious and good at denying,” Groce said about the Colonels. “That’s what they do, that’s what they’re good at.”
Joseph Bertrand's contributions helped Illinois overcome the opposition’s tough defense, however. With starting point guard Tracy Abrams forced to the bench with two fouls in the first half, Bertrand went 3-for-4 from the field, scoring seven points and grabbed six rebounds. His hard work kept Illinois in front at the break, 25-20.
Abrams came back after halftime and made a big impact. He started the half with a steal and a layup to get Illinois going. From there the team went on an 11-2 run to grab their biggest lead, 36-22 at 15:15.
Sloppy play by the Illini led to four quick turnovers, however, and the gap was cut under ten a minute-and-a-half later.
The Illinois lead would get as low as four, after Corey Walden converted an and-one opportunity, bringing the score to 42-38. On the next possession, however, Abrams gave Illinois some breathing room by hitting a three.
Abrams put his team on his back from there, making a string of big plays of his own. With five-and-a-half minutes to go the sophomore grabbed a rebound and ran the length of the court to drop in a layup. He followed that up with a steal and a 3 on the next possession putting Illinois up by 14 again, 54-40.
“Tracey had a look in his eye [after sitting in first],” Groce said. The point guard said sitting didn’t add motivation, though.
“Last game I sat out with two fouls [too],” he said. “You just gotta stay positive and be in to the game. You can’t be selfish, just gotta be there for the team and be in to the game.”
Despite Abrams outburst, the Illini could not get comfortable, as back-to-back 3's by Tarius Johnson and Glenn Cosey closed the gap to eight a minute later. A dunk from Paul and a 3 from Tyler Griffey did allow Illinois to be a little more at ease, bringing the score to 61-48 with two-and-a-half minutes to play.
A few empty possessions for EKU forced the Colonels to foul, giving Illinois even more breathing room. The Illini made five of six free throws in the final minute to see out the win. Paul led all Illini with 17 points. He came just one rebound shy of the double-double, grabbing nine boards. Abrams finished with 13 and Bertrand had 11 points. D.J. Richardson dished out a career-high seven assists in the win.
Despite their issues with turnovers, Illinois finished the game shooting 50 percent from the field, matching their best output of the season. Paul was not satisfied with the excellent shooting though, wanting to see his teammates continue to play consistent all around.
“We can make the most shots in the world but if we don’t guard we’re going to end up trading baskets anyway,” the senior guard said.
With the win Groce becomes the first Illinois coach in more than 100 years to start his Illinois career with 12 straight wins. To ensure a perfect non-conference season, however, Groce’s team will have to win a pair of neutral site games to close out the calendar year.
Illinois is back in action next week to take on Missouri in the Braggin’ Rights game at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, MO. The Illini will then head to the United Center on Dec. 29 to play Auburn.
, Brandon Paul
, Eastern Kentucky