CHAMPAIGN — Coach John Groce made a promise that once Lou Henson returned from Las Cruces, N.M., before Christmas, he’d salute the Illini coaching legend by wearing an orange sport coat to a home game.
That gesture came Sunday at the Assembly Hall when Groce blazed out of the tunnel wearing a bright orange jacket, a throwback to the fashion statement Henson popularized during his 21-year coaching career. Henson was resplendent in his own orange corduroy coat and he greeted Groce at mid-court with a pre-game handshake.
The dueling sport coats were only a prelude to the main event.
An unexpectedly large walkup crowd showed up to watch 10th-ranked Illinois take on Eastern Kentucky in a battle of unbeaten teams. And although it suffered through 20 turnovers and a second-straight sub-par 3-point shooting effort, Illinois won 66-53 and will take a 12-0 record to the Braggin’ Rights game against Missouri on Saturday in St. Louis.
Brandon Paul led the way with 17 points and nine rebounds, and Groce was easily able to look past any mistakes thanks to a level of hustle he’s been demanding.
“I’m really, really proud of our effort,” Groce said. “I thought throughout the 40 minutes it was outstanding. We had a nastiness about us on the defensive end.
“When I’m driving home in my car tonight I’ll be proud of their effort and toughness. We played, we battled, we fought and that’s what we’ve been looking for.”
Paul said practice sessions leading up to this game focused specifically on elevating the intensity in the Assembly Hall, especially on defense.
“We can make all the shots in the world, but if we don’t guard it doesn’t matter,” Paul said. “We have to make them take tough 2s, then capitalize when we get stops.
“The message was to play harder than we have in the past at home.”
With final exams occupying much of the team’s attention early in this week, Illinois now swings its attention to the annual Border War showdown against Missouri (5 p.m., Saturday, ESPN2).
The senior Paul didn’t need to be reminded that with losses to Missouri in each of the last three seasons, he has only this final chance to claim a Braggin’ Rights victory.
“It’s a huge motivation because we haven’t won it yet,” he said. “We’re unbeaten so far, and that’s one thing we want is to go into (Big Ten) play undefeated.
“We’re not going in thinking (Missouri) is going to hand us the trophy. We’re going to have to fight for it.”
Despite owning a 42-23 rebounding edge and shooting 66.7 percent (14-of-21) in the second half, the Illini had to fight to hand Eastern Kentucky its first loss after nine victories.
When Corey Walden completed a three-point play with 9:48 to go, Eastern Kentucky had trimmed Illinois’ lead to 42-38.
But Illinois responded with a 12-2 run and seven of those points were by Tracy Abrams, who scored all 13 of his points in the second half.
A 3-pointer by Abrams started the run and made it 45-40. A mid-range jumper by Tyler Griffey extended the lead to 47-40, forcing Eastern Kentucky to call timeout with 7:52 to play.
After getting a stop at the other end, Nnanna Egwu missed a shot for Illinois, but the rebound was kicked out to Paul, who hit a 3-pointer for a 50-40 lead, again prompting Eastern Kentucky coach Jeff Neubauer to call timeout.
Abrams then hit a 1-handed floader to make it 52-40. Then he sprawled on the floor to get a steal on the defensive end.
Abrams he finished that possession with a 19-foot fallaway jumper from the corner to push the Illini lead to 54-40, giving Illinois enough of a margin to hold off the Colonels.
Joseph Bertrand added 11 points and seven rebounds but it was the play of 6-11 sophomore Egwu that had Groce buzzing.
“I thought Nnanna was all over the place defensively,” Groce said. “His stat line doesn’t do his effort justice. He guarded perimeter guys, he was switching ball screens, he covered up drives, he blocked (four) shots. He was really locked in.”
The Illini blocked nine shots as a team.
Neubauer said he was proud of Eastern Kentucky’s defensive effort and the 20 turnovers matched Illinois’ season-high. But the Colonels shot 36.2 percent and got clobbered on the glass.
“I was really pleased with our defensive effort, but offensively we struggled,” Neubauer said. “They switched ball screens, and we didn’t shoot it over their taller athletes.”
Walden led Eastern Kentucky with 21 points, but starting guards Mike DiNunno, Glenn Cosey and Tarius Johnson were a combined 6-for-30.
The crowd of 15,029 was the largest of the season and Jason Heggemeyer, the Assembly Hall ticket manager, said it was the largest walkup crowd he could recall in recent years.
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