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Illinois off to another 5-0 start with win over Chicago State

Illinois’ Joseph Bertrdrives past Chicago State’s Kurt Karis during first half Friday. Bertrhad 12 points against Cougars. | Darrell Hoemann/AP

Illinois’ Joseph Bertrand drives past Chicago State’s Kurt Karis during the first half Friday. Bertrand had 12 points against the Cougars. | Darrell Hoemann/AP

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Updated: December 24, 2013 6:19AM



CHAMPAIGN — If Illinois coach John Groce were to judge his team solely off the fifth and final game of its season-opening homestand, a 77-53 victory over Chicago State, he’d have no choice but to be harsh in his overall assessment.

The Illini (5-0) didn’t do much of what Groce wanted to see in this Friday-night affair. He’d told them to push the pace but also to take care of the ball.

In a first half that ended 33-26, they failed to do either, piling up eight turnovers, several in transition, and not attacking openings in the Cougars’ zone as the game bogged down for a while into a halfcourt snoozer.

Groce also had emphasized rebounding and transition defense. The Illini again handled their business on the boards, outrebounding the Cougars (2-4) by 19, but their defense showed plenty of cracks as the overmatched visitors — who had once trailed 12-2 — cut their deficit to 55-51 with eight minutes to play.

“It was an odd game,” Groce said. “We got off to a 12-2 start, but I still didn’t think we were ready to play. . . . We’ve got a ways to go. We need to be more ready than we were today.”

Illinois’ 22-2 run to close the game was nice — especially where Jon Ekey was concerned — but a fairly lame fifth-game effort was already in the books.

But the full five-game assessment has to be mostly positive. The competition hasn’t been much, but the Illini are 5-0 for the third consecutive season, and no one’s going to complain about that. As the team heads into a two-week stretch that includes games at UNLV and Georgia Tech and against Auburn in Atlanta, it has reasons to be excited about its potential.

The Illini are an athletic blend of veterans — including senior Ekey and junior Rayvonte Rice, both transfers — and hungry freshmen. They share the ball willingly, attack the glass avidly and have bought into Groce’s concepts of effort and togetherness.

And then there’s Ekey, who has made more of a mark here already than anyone could’ve expected. A 6-7 forward who started 75 games at Illinois State but never averaged in double figures, Ekey has displayed such an impressive three-point stroke that Chicago State coach Tracy Dildy called him one of the best shooters in the country.

Ekey had 19 points and was 5-for-8 from long range. He has made 12 of his last 19 three-point attempts.

“It’s great at this level, this stage, being able to do that,” he said.

According to Groce, Ekey also has been the team’s best defender. Illini fans at the State Farm Center are loving him more for his offense, of course, which has included a few thunderous dunks.

“He has certainly earned it,” Groce said, “and not just because he’s making shots.”

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SLGreenberg



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