CHAMPAIGN — When Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey transferred to Illinois, there was a segment of the fan base who thought John Groce was reaching for a pair of Missouri Valley Conference players. It was a small segment, but the sentiment was out there.
The non-believers will continue to be skeptical until Rice, the Drake transfer, and Ekey, the former Illinois State Redbird, produce consistently when the Big Ten slate kicks in, but they’ve been impressive through five games, particularly so in Friday’s 77-53 win against Chicago State at State Farm Center.
Former Illini D.J. Richardson, in attendance Friday, is already a believer.
“I like him; he’s nice,” Richardson said of Ekey. “I saw him over the summer, and I already knew what kind of athlete he was.”
With the Cougars hanging tough, closing to within 55-51 in the second half, Ekey went on a personal 10-0 run, following up a pair of three-pointers with a monster one-handed tip dunk to bring the nervous State Farm Center crowd to its feet.
“We just couldn’t stop him,” Chicago State coach Tracy Dildy said. “Our last things leading up to this was, ‘Hey, we’ve got to know where 33 is at all times.’ We even doubled him at times. He’s one of the best shooters in the country.”
Early in the second half, the transfer duo of Ekey and Rice (12 points) teamed up to score eight straight, and when Illinois needed a big play to end a drought or establish some separation from Chicago State (2-4), it was one of the two who answered the bell.
Ekey scored a team-high 19 points for the second straight game to go along with six rebounds. As he did in Sunday’s win against Bradley, Ekey drilled five three-pointers for the Illini (5-0).
“Jon made some shots there, made a big play on the offensive glass,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “I’ve been saying the whole time he could shoot the ball. I want him to keep shooting the ball.”
Groce thought the Independence, Mo., native could help his squad in his lone season with the Illini, but even the Illinois coach couldn’t have predicted what Ekey has been able to provide to this point.
“You really don’t know until you coach a guy,” Groce said. “I knew he was a really good athlete vertically, I knew he was a great guy, and I knew he could shoot the cover off the ball. Until you coach a guy, it’s hard to appreciate those intangibles.”
When Ekey checked out of the game with four minutes left to get a breather after his theatrics, he received a rousing ovation from the 15,488 in attendance. The newfound attention, he said, is exciting.
“It’s great. At this level, this stage, being able to do that,” Ekey said. “The coaches have been talking about it ever since I got on campus. It’s why they recruited me.”
The Illini also got 12 points apiece from Joseph Bertrand (eight rebounds) and Tracy Abrams (five assists, four rebounds). Nnanna Egwu battled foul trouble to score six points and grab a game-high nine rebounds.
Bertrand went on a personal 10-0 run in Illinois’ win against Georgia Tech last year. On Friday, he watched Ekey match his outburst.
“It was great he did that; we definitely needed it at that point in the game,” Bertrand said. “He hit a couple threes, and that tip dunk was crazy. He gave us a boost in the second half.”