UI 65, Missouri 64: Notebook
ST. LOUIS — Mike Ekey has been to plenty of Braggin’ Rights games. As a student at Mizzou, Ekey made the annual trip to Scottrade Center wearing Black and Gold, chanting “M-I-Z, Z-O-U” with the other 11,000 or so Tigers fans.
On Saturday, though, he sat behind the Illinois bench, wearing a blue Illinois polo shirt chanting “I-L-L, I-N-I” with the Illini faithful.
Having a brother wearing the Orange and Blue during the Braggin’ Rights game will switch allegiances in a hurry.
“Yes, it does,” the older brother of Illinois forward Jon Ekey said. “I was telling everyone, blood’s thicker, and that’s all that matters.”
A 2006 Missouri graduate, Mike Ekey said he won’t root against his Tigers again this season.
“I’m OK with that,” Mike Ekey said. “It’s always fun, it’s great. This year is even more exciting because I’ve got a brother on the court. I’m not cheering for Missouri, but it’s so great to see my brother out there.”
Jon has emerged as a key contributor during the early part of the season, scoring about nine points a game and leading the team in rebounding in his lone season with the Illini after transferring from Illinois State.
“I think it’s been great. He’s one of the team leaders, and you can see that,” Mike Ekey said. “You watch how he rallies the guys, especially in the close games. It’s been phenomenal to watch, and I’ve been real proud of him.”
As a clan, the Ekeys are used to conflict regarding their teams. Mike’s wife Sarah and his mom Jill are Kansas graduates. Middle brother Geoff went to Kansas State.
“We’re just trying to make sure we’ve got the Midwest covered,” Mike said.
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From an offensive standpoint, Kendrick Nunn’s stat line — three points on 1-for-4 shooting — doesn’t jump out at you, but that doesn’t even begin to tell the complete story about the Illinois freshman’s first Braggin’ Rights experience.
Nunn also had a career-high three steals and pulled down two rebounds for the Illini.
“He’s getting better. He’s really improving. He understands our defense. I thought he defended really well tonight,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “He was huge for us. He guarded the ball well. He’s in the right position; he understood what we wanted. I thought he executed the game plan well defensively. He got some steals, got his hands on some balls, made a big shot. He’s continuing to get better, growing up, and we’re excited about the direction he’s headed.”
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For the second time during his tenure at Illinois and the first time this season, Groce wore an orange blazer to go along with his white shirt, orange and blue tie and black pants.
The blazer, a tribute to former Illinois coach Lou Henson, is reserved for special games, and Groce said he was on the fence about breaking it out up until game time.
Friends at his wife’s Christmas party earlier in the week egged him on to do it. He began to warm up to the idea and then was told that Illinois football assistant coach Tim Salem had tweeted out that Groce was going to wear the orange blazer.
“I had a suit and the coat, and I wasn’t sure,” Groce said. “(Salem) was the only other male in attendance the other night at the party, so I guess Tim deserves the credit. The last thing I wanted to do was disappoint Tim. It was just a call at the last second.”
The blazer means a great deal to Groce. It was made famous by Henson during his tenure at Illinois from 1975 to ’96.
“Every time I wear the coat, I think of Coach Henson, not only out of respect for what he’s done at the University of Illinois and what he’s meant to the Champaign-Urbana community, I think he’s an unbelievable coach and an even better person,” Groce said. “The way he’s treated me since I’ve had the job, he didn’t have to do that. He always goes out of his way in tough times and good times, and I really appreciate the person he is, and I do appreciate him as a coach. Every time I put that on, I think of Coach Henson.”
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Saturday’s win was the 1,700th in the history of the Illinois program, making it the 13th program to reach the milestone.
Kentucky has the most wins all time with 2,120, and only one other Big Ten program, Indiana (1,728), has more than Illinois.
“My whole life, I’ve had a great deal of respect for Illinois basketball. I’ve watched Big Ten basketball since I was a kid,” Groce said. “I remember the Flyin’ Illini; I coached against the 2005 team. When I had the chance to interview for the job with Mike Thomas, you start looking at the tradition of Illinois basketball and how rich that tradition is. I’m not surprised where we rank in terms of overall wins and the program’s success.
“A lot of great coaches, a lot of great players. I feel truly blessed to be a small part of it.”
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In their two losses this season, the Illini held late leads against Georgia Tech and Oregon only to see them evaporate and turn into defeats. It looked for a time that Saturday’s game against Missouri might end in the same fashion.
Illinois found a way, and it was a big hurdle for this team to cross mentally and physically.
“It’s big for our team. We’ve been talking about it a lot. At some point, talk is cheap, you’ve got to step up, especially on the defensive end,” Groce said. “We felt like that was the biggest deal for us going forward, in terms of improvement. There’s too many points per possession scored late in games. Today our whole deal was get stops and rebounds, let the rest take care of itself and we’ll make a few plays on the offensive end, and fortunately for us today that’s what happened.”
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The Illinois players went their separate ways immediately after Saturday’s game. Austin Colbert, a native of Virginia, remained in St. Louis to fly home. Malcolm Hill, from nearby Belleville, went home with his parents, and other Illinois players left the Scottrade Center with their parents.
Other Illinois players rode the bus back to campus to drive themselves home.
They’ll be off until Christmas night before preparing for the game Saturday in Chicago against UIC at the United Center.
“We’ll have a little workout Christmas night to get their wind back,” Groce said. “We’ll practice the 26th and the 27th and head to Chicago.”