Ekey key to Illinois’ 64-52 victory over Valparaiso

Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice (24) attempts a layup during the game against Valparaiso at State Farm Center, on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013. The Illini won 64-52.

By Johnathan Hettinger

As time expired in Illinois’ 64-52 victory over Valparaiso on Wednesday night, Jon Ekey sat on the Illini bench with a bloody head.

He and teammate Rayvonte Rice had bumped heads in the final minutes of a physical game that included 37 fouls and 85 rebounds. Despite being severely undersized, the 6-foot-7 Ekey fought for 15 rebounds against a Valparaiso frontcourt that included three contributors that stood at 6-foot-10 or taller. Thanks largely to his effort, Illinois was able to outrebound and eventually defeat a tough Valparaiso 49-36 and improve to 3-0.

“I’m so thankful that we have him,” Illinois head coach John Groce said of the fifth-year transfer from Illinois State.

Ekey wasn’t the only undersized Illini able to grab rebounds; 6-foot-4 Rayvonte Rice grabbed eight rebounds, in addition to his 18 points, and 6-foot-6 Joseph Bertrand grabbed six, in addition to his 14 points.

Illinois’ centers Nnanna Egwu and Maverick Morgan contributed three and two rebounds, respectively.

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Both teams shot less than 33 percent, contributing to the high number of rebounds. Valparaiso shot 32.7 percent (17-for-52) and Illinois struggled against a tough zone defense, shooting 31.8 percent (21-for-66).

“I don’t know if it was the great defense on both ends or the poor shooting,” Valparaiso head coach Bryce Drew said.

Ekey said Valparaiso’s zone defense made it easier for him to grab his eight offensive rebounds. Overall, Illinois’ 18 offensive rebounds were key to 14 extra shots and 11 second-chance points.

“I’ve always tried to use my athleticism to get in there and get around guys, tipping it out,” Ekey said. “I just found my way in there a lot today.”

Ekey scored just six points on the night, but Groce said his 3-point buzzer beater at the end of the first half that gave Illinois a 33-25 lead helped change momentum heading into the half.

“He’s so valuable. Tonight, I played him at three, four and five in the 40 minutes of the game. He’s a really good shooter,” Groce said. “He takes care of the ball. He knows our defensive scheme inside and out.”

Illinois was able to extend that lead to 49-39 in the second half, but Groce substituted out many of his starters, and a bench that had largely contributed to Illinois’ first two victories gave up an 8-0 run.

After the reserves let Valparaiso cut the lead to 49-47, Groce substituted his starters back in with 5:41 left.

Abrams immediately combatted the 8-0 run with a drive to the basket, followed by a Rice “and-1” that jumpstarted a 15-5 run and turned the tide of the game.

Illinois’ starters contributed 60 of Illinois’ 64 points, with freshman Malcolm Hill being the lone reserve to score.

Groce said he wasn’t worried about the lack of production from the bench or the poor shooting, but instead was impressed with the way his team finished.

“We did a better job of blocking out. We were better on the offensive glass. Our defense really ratcheted it up late.” Groce said. “We didn’t play pretty, but we played the right way.”

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.