CHAMPAIGN — When D.J. Richardson checked into the game early in the second half, the 14,144 at the Assembly Hall rose to their feet, giving the senior guard a standing ovation.
Earlier, he forced them to an eerie silence as he lay on the court after a collision with a Norfolk State player forced him to the locker room for the last minute of the first half.
His upper-shoulder contusion proved playable, and he gave the folks something to cheer about in leading No. 10 Illinois to a 64-54 win Tuesday.
Richardson scored seven straight points during a four-minute stretch with the game in the balance and helped his squad improve to 11-0, a first for the program since the 2005-06 season.
“D.J.’s a tough kid. He wants to compete to win; all these guys do,” first-year Illinois coach John Groce said. “That’s what they’ve been about since we’ve gotten together with them; that’s what makes them fun to be around. They play for Illinois; they play for one another.”
Tuesday’s game can be looked at one of two ways. On one hand, it was another troubling performance in that the Illini played down to their competition after the big win Saturday at Gonzaga.
Illinois shot a season-low 35 percent from the field and hit a season-low six three-pointers after coming in leading the nation at 10.8 per game.
“I’ve got to figure that out. I’ve got to do a better job. I’ve got to do a better job getting them ready to play,” Groce said.
Or, it can be said that this is a resilient group that finds a way to win despite not having its best effort.
Defensively, the Illini held the Spartans (6-6) to 38.2 percent shooting and forced 14 turnovers.
“We find ways to win and grind it out,” said Brandon Paul, who had 14 points and eight rebounds. “Coach likes to take responsibility for it, but he can’t come out there and play for us.”
The good news is Richardson (11 points, three rebounds) said he’ll be all right for Eastern Kentucky (9-0). “I’m feeling good, get some treatment tomorrow, and I’ll be ready for Sunday,” he said.
Point guard Tracy Abrams (nine points), who left the game briefly with a shin contusion, is expected to be fine, too. The Illini, who got contributions off the bench from Sam McLaurin (six points, six rebounds) and Joseph Bertrand (nine points, seven rebounds) have today off from practice.
“Tracy’s a Chicago guy, D.J.’s a Peoria guy; they love the game and they’re not going to let much keep them from it,” Paul said. “I know (athletic trainer) Paul (Schmidt) is going to do a good job getting them back, and they’re going to be ready for Sunday.”