In-state basketball matchup overshadowed by tornados


Illinois’ Jon Ekey (33) shoots from the three-point line during the game against Bradley at State Farm Center in Champaign, Ill. on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013. The Illini won 81-55.

There weren’t a whole lot of red-clad fans in State Farm Center on Sunday when Bradley lost to Illinois in an 81-55 blowout, but the Braves fans who were present might have had other things on their minds than the basketball game playing out before them.

Tornados caused damage throughout much of Illinois on Sunday. The worst of the damage may have been in Washington, Ill., just east of the Bradley campus in Peoria.

For both coaches at State Farm Center on Sunday, it was just a blessing to be able to go out and play basketball.

“I get to coach this game, and these guys get to play it,” Illini head coach John Groce said. “We’re the luckiest guys in the world. But our thoughts and prayers are out to East Peoria and Gifford and Hoopeston and Washington and Pekin and all the places that were affected by the tornado and inclement weather.”

Bradley head coach Geno Ford expressed similar sentiments. He said it was gut wrenching to hear what happened to people in a community so close to home.

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    “It puts basketball in perspective a little bit,” Ford said. “We’ve got a lot of things, basketball-wise, that we need to address. But there are greater tragedies in the world than not blocking out, that’s for sure.”

    While poor blocking out is by no means a tragedy, Ford’s team was certainly manhandled by the Illini in the paint Sunday. The Illini out-rebounded the Braves 49-25. A big part of that was the consistency of Illinois center Nnanna Egwu.

    Egwu has made his presence known in each of Illinois four games, blocking shots and snatching rebounds. The key for him will be staying out of foul trouble. When Illinois played Valparaiso’s sizeable frontcourt (featuring three players 6-foot-10 or taller) on Wednesday, Egwu, with five fouls, watched the end of the game from the bench.

    Illinois will see similar size in Big Ten play, and keeping Egwu — who’s scored 10 points in all four games this season — on the court will be essential.

    Another guy who has been vital to Illinois’ rebounding effort is Jon Ekey, who seems to get a hand on every other ball that clanks off the rim. But where his presence was most noticed Sunday was from behind the 3-point arc.

    Ekey and the Illini shot 10-of-25 from deep against Bradley after hitting just 13 3-pointers in the previous three games.

    “I think we’ve taken good ones,” Groce said. “We’ve moved the ball. We’ve been doing that really early (in the season). Sometimes one of the things (you struggle with) when you first start to get together as a team is getting them to make that extra pass and move the ball. Our guys have really done it.”

    Point guard Tracy Abrams and freshman guard Kendrick Nunn each hit two threes against Bradley. Senior Joseph Bertrand added another and Ekey came through with five threes.

    Last season the Illini lived and died on the 3-point arc through non-conference play and the early part of the Big Ten season. It hasn’t been that way this year, but when the Illini get hot from the outside, it makes things a lot easier.

    For Groce, his team’s shot selection has been more impressive than whether the shots have been going down.

    “I can count maybe on one-hand-and-half hands how many bad shots we’ve taken in a game since we started playing exhibition games,” Groce said. “That’s pretty rare with a lot of new faces.”

    Illinois doesn’t play again until Chicago State visits State Farm Center on Friday, the longest idle stretch it has seen so far this season.

    Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.