After winning their first two games of the season by double digits, Illinois would face their biggest test of the early season taking on the streaking Valparaiso Crusaders. The Crusaders also entered the game with a 2-0 record, winning their last contest by an impressive 63 points against North Park, running out to 113 points. The Illini didn’t need 113 points to win this one—in fact, both teams combined for only 119 points. The final doesn’t tell the story of the hard fought game by Valpo, but Illinois found their rhythm in the end, winning 64-52.
The Crusaders were no push over last season despite playing in the Horizon League, finishing with a 26-8 record before falling to Michigan State in a competitive NCAA tournament game. The Crusaders lost six seniors that accounted for about 75% of the team’s possessions, but they were still a handful for the Illini.
Despite facing multiple double digit deficits throughout the contest, Valpo never let themselves out of the game.
“We had to grind that one out and that one wasn’t necessarily at the pace—we want to play as fast as possible,” Groce said. “I thought early we had good pace and then our pace wasn’t as good. Give them a lot of credit for that.”
Down by ten late in the second half, Valparaiso senior guard LaVonte Dority scored five straight points, topped off with a three pointer off the dribble.
Senior power forward Bobby Capobianco hit his second three of the game to cut it to a 49-47 Illinois lead as the Crusaders went on an 8-0 run with 6:43 left in the game.
Junior point guard Tracy Abrams finally ended the Illini cold streak, hitting a timely floater to make it a two possession game again.
Abrams had a slow start, but finished with a versatile 12 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks.
On the next Illinois possession, the Illini’s Rayvonte Rice sprinted into the lane and finished an athletic and-one drive over the 7 foot Moussa Gueye.
Illinois led 54-47 with 4:11 left after Rice hit the free throw.
Rice finished with a game high 18 points and 3 assists.
Back to back floaters by Abrams and Joseph Bertrand extended it to a 58-48 Illinois lead.
Rice entertained the fans one last time with a huge tip in slam to put the exclamation point on the Illinois victory.
“I really was proud of my guys for their effort, their attitude, and how hard they played,” Coach John Groce said. “Loved the fact that we got punched in the mouth on an 8-0 run to cut it to two, and then went right back on an 11-1 run.”
Although he was quiet on the offensive end, transfer grad student Jon Ekey was huge for the Illini.
After Illinois relinquished an early 15-5 lead and went scoreless for a seven minute stretch at one point in the first half, Ekey stole back the momentum.
With three seconds left in the half, Abrams got the ball inbounded just in time, finding Ekey on the perimeter.
Ekey lifted a high arcing shot from deep that somehow found its way into the basket at the buzzer. Illinois pulled their lead back out to 33-25 heading into the locker room.
Ekey finished with 6 points and 15 rebounds.
“I’ve always tried to use my athleticism and just try to get in there and get around guys,” Ekey said. “Tipping it out or grabbing it myself—I’ve always tried to, but today I just found a lot of the holes there and was able to get up there and tip them out or grab them.”
The Illini turned the ball over eight times and have now turned the ball over a total of 13 times in their past two contests—two turnovers less than they had in their first game.
Illinois shot a season-low 32% from the field, but at the end of the day, all that matters to Groce is coming away with the W.
“I thought we played the right way,” Groce said. “We didn’t play pretty, but we played the right way.”