Jon Ekey leaves a permanent mark on Illinois


Jon Ekey

By Johnathan Hettinger

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

Jon Ekey has always been a procrastinator. He waits until the last minute to write papers and do homework.

So when he had an entire regular season to make a lasting mark in the collective memory of Illinois men’s basketball fans, he waited until the last second.

With the score tied at 63 at Iowa on Saturday and the clock ticking down under 10 seconds, point guard Tracy Abrams dribbled up the court. Ekey, hovering on the perimeter, came to set a screen but pulled away, rolling left to the top of the arc. Ekey’s defender, Aaron White, didn’t immediately follow, creating a large enough gap for Abrams to pass the ball to Ekey. He squared up for a shot he’s hit countless times in his years playing basketball, but never with so much pressure on the line. He got his feet under his shoulders, lifted off the ground, adjusted his trajectory to avoid White’s 6-foot-9 frame, and let it fly.

With 0.5 seconds remaining in the regular season, the ball swished through the rim. Ekey had hit the biggest shot of the season — and made his lasting mark.

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At least in the memory of fans.

Head coach John Groce said that although this may be what fans remember, Ekey has already made a lasting imprint.

Since his arrival on campus over the summer, Ekey has been a leader. He helped shepherd the eight other newcomers over the summer and made sure the team took advantage of its limited time together.

He quickly learned Groce’s offensive and defensive schemes and was able to help the new players pick up on the intricacies of the system.

“He’s a very smart guy,” freshman Malcolm Hill said. “He almost knew the system off the jump, as a new guy.”

After just a few months with the team, before he had played a game for Illinois, his teammates elected him as a captain.

“I think his leadership by example for our newcomers has been terrific,” Groce said. “That in itself is a tangible aspect is as, or more, valuable than the production piece, which obviously he’s produced.”

Ekey opened the season quietly, with two points in his opening game against Alabama State, but fans quickly learned his name. In both the fourth and fifth games of the season, Ekey hit five 3-pointers and finished with 19 points.

In the next game, against UNLV, he scored just three points, but it was his first big shot at Illinois — a crucial jumper with 2:21 remaining that tied the game for Illinois. Despite the limited scoring, center Nnanna Egwu said Illinois wouldn’t have won that game without him.

“UNLV that three was big,” Egwu said. “Talk about Mizzou, those two 3-pointers he hit were even bigger. He’s been making marks throughout the whole year.

“If you take Ekey off the team, even with all the tough losses we’ve had all year, we’d have even more without him.”

In Big Ten play, Ekey’s production fell off, his playing time fell along with it.

With Illinois on an eight-game losing streak, head coach John Groce took Ekey out of the starting lineup and replaced him with Hill. Ekey not only shared a position with the freshman but had mentored him during the season.

“I’ve just been learning from him. He’s been talking to me, teaching me, especially on the defensive end,” Hill said. “(Without him,) I wouldn’t be as good off-the-ball player as I am now.”

Groce said Ekey adapted to his new role well.

His senior handled it well, another classy act by a “pro’s pro,” teaching the younger guys how to take disappointment in stride.

Ekey said being in the starting lineup didn’t matter. All he cared about was winning. And that’s what the team did.

In Ekey’s first game on the bench, Illinois broke its eight-game losing streak, and the Illini are 5-3 since Ekey and fellow senior Joseph Bertrand were replaced by Hill and freshman Kendrick Nunn.

“It doesn’t really matter when you get in the game,” Ekey said. “It doesn’t matter who they put where, we’re good no matter where you put us.”

Ekey didn’t start against Iowa, but he played when it counted most.

And Groce appreciates not only the shot, but everything the senior’s done for the program.

“He truly has been a godsend for our program,” Groce said. “I just hope that he’s enjoyed it as much as I’ve enjoyed coaching him.”

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected].