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In victory over Bradley, transfers Ekey, Rice ease pain of Illini fans

Illinois guard Joseph Bertr(2) dives past Bradley forward AustBarnes first half an NCAA college basketball game Sunday Nov. 17 2013

Illinois guard Joseph Bertrand (2) dives past Bradley forward Auston Barnes in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Rick Danzl)

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Updated: November 18, 2013 12:03AM



CHAMPAIGN — If you can’t be with the ones you love — come on, we can finish the line together — love the ones you’re with.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released a classic song with those lyrics (well, close to those lyrics) in 1971, the year Illinois coach John Groce was born. How fitting the words are for this moment in the development of Groce’s program.

Cliff Alexander doesn’t want to be here. Neither does Quentin Snider. The coveted recruits opted for Kansas and Louisville, respectively, on national signing day.

They were dual downers for Groce — who doesn’t stay down long at all — and for all Illini fans. It’s still hard for some to believe the school didn’t end up with both ­players.

But enough about that, you know? So what.

The Illini played their tails off Sunday night, dominating Bradley (4-1) in an 81-55 victory to move to 4-0. They outrebounded the Braves 49-25, prompting opposing coach Geno Ford to question his team’s toughness. The Illini played together, with an assist coming on 19 of their 28 field goals.

“I loved our effort. I thought our attitude was off the charts,” said Groce, who called it his team’s best game thus far.

It was an important game — a meaningful moment — and the ­Illini showed the future is plenty bright.

Because of the players who are already here, that is.

There were major contributions from many of the players who are in their first seasons on the court for the Illini.

Jon Ekey, a graduate transfer from Illinois State, drained five three-point shots and finished with a game-high 19 points. Rayvonte Rice, who sat out last season after transferring from Drake, scored 13 and threw down multiple dunks that electrified the crowd inside the State Farm Center. Both players added seven rebounds.

The Simeon connection — true freshman guards Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn — combined for 12 points, nine assists and just two turnovers off the bench. Freshman Malcolm Hill had his moments, too.

Reinforcements are on the way. Leron Black will bring much-deserved hype with him in 2014, and D.J. Williams a year after that. Meanwhile, Groce will continue to swing for the fences as he recruits throughout the Chicago area.

But there’s a lot Groce loves about the team he’s already with. The Illini’s good qualities were all on display on Sunday. It was just one game, but it was one that ­mattered.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg



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