CHAMPAIGN — When it was brought to his attention that Nnanna Egwu didn’t pick up his first foul Sunday until there were 14 seconds remaining in No. 10 Illinois’ 66-53 win against Eastern Kentucky, the normally stone-faced Tracy Abrams couldn’t help but chuckle.
“I live with him,” he said.
Egwu’s teammates give him a hard time about it.
It’s one of those things that’s been a given with this Illinois team. They’re going to take and make a lot of threes, and Egwu will foul.
But on Sunday the shots weren’t falling. Illinois, which was averaging better than 10 made three-pointers per game, made only six. And Egwu, who had fouled out three times this season and was averaging 3.4 fouls per game, nearly put up a zero in that category.
Even more impressive is he did so while tying a career high with four blocked shots.
“I thought that Egwu was all over the place defensively,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “His stat line doesn’t do him justice. He switched ball screens, he guarded perimeters and posts and covered up drives, blocked four shots; he was all over the place.
“He was really locked in, as were all of our guys for most of the night on the defensive end.”
The Illini (12-0) needed that kind of effort from Egwu and the entire team as they were cold from the outside (6 for 23), and Eastern Kentucky (9-1) was causing all kinds of havoc of its own on the defensive end. The Colonels coaxed the Illini into a season-high-tying 20 turnovers and scored 17 of their points as a result.
“I’ll give them some credit; they’re second in the nation in forcing them. That’s not bad; that’s pretty good,” Groce said.
The Illini got another all-around effort from Brandon Paul (17 points, nine rebounds, three assists, two blocks), Abrams (five rebounds, three steals) scored all 13 of his points in the second half and Joseph Bertrand added 11 points and seven rebounds off the bench.
But the 6-foot-11 Egwu’s maturation and the team’s overall toughness for the 40 minutes Sunday are what had Groce fired up ahead of Saturday’s rivalry tilt with No. 11 Missouri in St. Louis.
“He’s just getting better,” the coach said of Egwu, who was 3-for-4 shooting for seven points. “He shot it well tonight. I thought he did a good job at both ends of the floor. I thought it was the most complete game he’s played to this juncture.”