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Illinois stays perfect at 12-0 with 66-53 win over Eastern Kentucky



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Updated: December 17, 2012 12:03AM

CHAMPAIGN — In keeping with the holiday season, there were some moments of nostalgia Sunday at Assembly Hall.

New coach John Groce put on an orange sport coat to welcome back Illini legend Lou Henson, who also looked natty in his orange corduroy jacket.

Like Henson, who spends a big chunk of his year in Las Cruces, N.M., the fans also are coming back. No. 10 Illinois was supported by a crowd of 15,029, its largest of the season and one of the biggest walk-up crowds at Assembly Hall.

The Illini rewarded Henson and their growing bandwagon by defeating previously unbeaten Eastern Kentucky 66-53 to improve to 12-0.

‘‘I told coach Henson for his first game back that I’d wear the orange coat out of respect for him,’’ Groce said. ‘‘He was here 21 seasons. He was a terrific coach. He’s been a great sounding board for me. And he’s an even better person. You can tell by the response he gets from people. He loves people, and he loves the Fighting Illini.’’

Continuing another tradition, Groce even has a thumbs-down signal for a play, the same as Lou-do used to do.

Henson, who received a resounding ovation when he and wife Mary were shown on the Jumbotron, likes what Groce is doing, too.

‘‘This team is very aggressive,’’ said Henson, who sat in the Orange Krush student section. ‘‘They’re excellent defensively. Offensively, they move the ball well. They have good balance, and they can shoot it. This is a very good team, an NCAA team.’’

Only five Illinois teams have had better starts, and Groce is tied with Fletcher Lane (1907-08) for best start by a first-year Illini coach.

‘‘I thought our effort was outstanding,’’ Groce said. ‘‘We had great energy, and we played with toughness. We had a nastiness about us on the defensive end.’’

Illinois will turn its attention to breaking its three-game losing streak against No. 12 Missouri when the teams meet for Braggin’ Rights on Saturday in St. Louis.

While struggling with its three-point specialty (6-for-23), Illinois was 19-for-27 inside the arc by going to the hoop. And it held the Colonels (9-1) to 36 percent shooting, including 27 percent on three-pointers.

That helped Illinois overcome 20 turnovers against a team that’s second in the nation in forcing turnovers.

‘‘We really battled,’’ said Groce, especially pleased with center Nnanna Egwu, who had four of Illinois’ nine blocks. ‘‘I thought Egwu was all over the place defensively. His stat line doesn’t do his effort justice.’’

All-America candidate Brandon Paul led Illinois with 17 points and nine rebounds. Sixth man Joseph Bertrand added 11 points and seven rebounds.

For sheer toughness, though, it was hard to top the performance of Tracy Abrams (13 points, five rebounds, three steals).

When Eastern Kentucky cut Illinois’ lead to 42-38 midway through the second half, Abrams sparked a 12-2 run that gave Illinois a 54-40 edge. The sophomore point guard had seven points — an early three, plus a pair of baskets sandwiched around a diving steal that brought the Illinois bench to its feet.

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