UI 81, Bradley 55: 'Full steam ahead'

CHAMPAIGN — Though he played well through the first three games of his Illinois career, there were some who were concerned about Jon Ekey’s shooting stroke. The Illinois State transfer entered Sunday’s game against Bradley shooting 3 for 12 from long range, though Illinois coach John Groce’s confidence never wavered.

“Good shot, Jon, keep shooting,” Groce typically yelled from the bench after misses by Ekey. “I have all the confidence in the world in Jon as a shooter,” Groce said after Wednesday’s win against Valparaiso.

In Sunday’s 81-55 win against Bradley at State Farm Center, Ekey displayed why his coach has such confidence in his stroke. The 6-foot-7 forward buried 5 of 7 shots from long distance en route to scoring a season-high 19 points to go along with seven rebounds in the rout.

“I think it’s just one of those days when it was going. The coaches and all the players, everyone’s got confidence in not only me but everyone to shoot the ball,” Ekey said. “It was just one of those days it was feeling good early in the game and the guys were unselfish. Not anything too different, just one of those days.”

Perhaps a familiar opponent helped calm Ekey’s nerves Sunday. With the Illini win, Ekey’s personal record against Bradley moves to 7-0. Or it could be that the two-time Missouri Valley All-Scholar Athlete selection is getting more familiar with his teammates and surroundings.

“I’m definitely more comfortable now. I’ve been in State Farm (Center) a few times now, getting more shots up,” Ekey said. “I’ve gotten to feel out the team, the way Coach coaches during games. It was a little bit of a feeling-out period in the summer figuring out how things were going to be, now we’ve got it going full steam ahead.”

After missing a pair of tip dunks Wednesday against Valparaiso, Ekey even got one of those to go down Sunday, crushing a two-handed tip dunk in the first half.

“Jon is a great guy, most importantly. I’m not even talking about basketball; off the court, too,” said teammate Tracy Abrams (12 points, eight rebounds, three assists). “That helps guys on the court just to deal with a guy like him everyday that brings energy, brings leadership. He’s not in it for himself. All of our guys are in it together, for the team. That’s definitely an advantage for us.”

Those teammates did their part, too, against the Braves (4-1). Rayvonte Rice poured in 13 points, grabbed seven boards and had five assists and also provided a pair of highlight-reel dunks. Nnanna Egwu scored exactly 10 points for the fourth consecutive game for the Illini (4-0). He also grabbed seven boards and blocked three shots.

“They had that chip a little bit today, had that edge, which you always want to have,” Groce said.

What happened

Thanks to a season-high 19 points from Jon Ekey and a plus-24 advantage in the rebounding department — the second time they’ve done that this season — the Illini moved their record in November games to 12-0 under John Groce.

What it means

Illinois extended its win streak against in-state nonconference opponents to five and pushed its regular season win streak against non-league foes at home to 37.

What’s next

After playing four games in 10 days, the Illini get four days off before welcoming another in-state opponent, Chicago State, to State Farm Center on Friday looking to remain unbeaten (10-0) against the Cougars.

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