Ekey lights it up again as Illinois tops Chicago State

New game, new opponent, same Jon Ekey. The senior forward hit another five threes and added an emphatic put-back slam in a 77-53 Illini win over Chicago State. Ekey’s 19-point performance equaled his 19-point outburst against Bradley just five days earlier.

Ekey finished five-of-eight from behind the arc and seven-of-10 overall. He also had six rebounds.

“It’s one of those things that the coaches have been talking about it ever since I got on campus,” Ekey said. “Going up there and taking the open one. Don’t pass up shots.”

The game was sloppy for 30 minutes. Illinois jumped out to a 12-2 lead in the first five minutes, but Chicago State would keep it close with its full-court pressure and zone defense. The Illini carried a 33-26 lead into halftime.

The second half wasn’t pretty either. Illinois led by as much as 16 early in the half, but the Cougars used a 15-4 spurt to cut Illinois’ lead to five with 8:37 remaining, at which point Illini head coach John Groce called a timeout to settle his team down.

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After a pair of free throws from Rayvonte Rice, Chicago State’s Matt Ross hit a three at the eight-minute mark to cut the lead to 55-51.

On the next possession Rice air-balled a three that was rebounded by Ekey, who slammed it in for an easy two. Ekey followed it up with back-to-back 3-pointers and put-back slam off a missed Jaylon Tate layup to highlight his own 10-0 run. The Illini ended the game on a 22-2 run to put away the Cougars.

“We definitely needed it at that point in the game,” guard Joseph Bertrand said. “That tip dunk was crazy, and I really think it gave us a boost in the second half.”

“Our defense is what gave us those opportunities,” Groce added. “We got out and ran and got some of those in transition or off of our defense.”

Chicago State slowed the game down more than Groce expected. The Illini were anticipating something like the Cougar’s 100-72 track meet loss to Indiana earlier in the season.

Even with the ugly play for much of the game, there were still highlights — notably Bertrand’s high-flying dunk over Chicago State forward Eddie Denard early in the second half. Bertrand, Rice and point guard Tracy Abrams each had 12 points behind Ekey’s 19. Center Nnanna Egwu was on the bench for a large portion of the game with foul trouble, but still finished with nine rebounds.

Chicago State head coach Tracy Dildy said the game plan was to zone the Illini for 40 minutes. He praised Groce and Ekey after the game.

“We knew at some point he was going to adjust,” Dildy said. “That’s just what coach Groce did. (Ekey’s) one of the best shooters in the country. Those weren’t lucky shots. They found holes in our zone and took advantage.”

Clarke Rosenberg led Chicago State with 16 points. Matt Ross added 13 and Quinton Pippen, nephew of former Chicago Bull Scottie Pippen, put in nine.

But it was Ekey who shined the brightest. Groce has never doubted Ekey’s shooting ability, but it’s all the other things he does that have impressed him the most early in the season.

“He does so many other things defensively and rebounding that show up on film,” Groce said. “You can’t put a price tag on that.”

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