CHAMPAIGN – After a scrappy, sometimes sloppy game against Valparaiso Wednesday, Illinois head coach John Groce sounded like a man whose team had just survived a crucial test.
The Illini (3-0) overcame 31.8 percent shooting, a much bigger opponent and a hard, late charge from the Crusaders for a 64-52 win.
“We missed layups, we missed dunks, we missed turnarounds, we missed wide-open shots,” Groce said. “And sometimes that happens. ... Tonight was one of those nights where we had to rely on our defense and our rebounding.”
And both came through.
Illinois outrebounded Valparaiso 49-46, and the Crusaders (2-1) shot almost as cold as the Illini – 32.7 percent. Part of it was the shooting – the Crusaders missed a number of shots on air balls – and part of it was Illinois.
“Surprisingly, both defenses were very good tonight,” Crusaders coach Bryce Drew said.
Rayvonte Rice led Illinois with 18 points, and added eight rebounds and three assists.
Joseph Bertrand added 14 points and six boards for the Illini, and Tracy Abrams had 12 points, four assists, two steals and two blocks. Jon Ekey, a 6-foot-7 forward, had a game-high 15 rebounds for Illinois playing against a lineup that sometimes included three of the Crusaders’ four players who stand 6-10 or taller.
“The coaches tell me every day in practice, ‘Go, the offensive rebounds are key for us,’” Ekey said. “It was just one of those days that I found my way in there.”
Illini Center Nnanna Egwu had 10 points and three blocks before fouling out late.
Jordan Coleman led Valparaiso with 15 points, and LaVonte Dority played through an early ankle sprain to add 12 points, including a pair of 3-pointers.
“He’s a very competitive player,” Drew said of Dority. “[Being] from Chicago, he was looking forward to this game. I know he was going through a lot.”
The Illini led by eight at halftime. But the Crusaders clawed back to within two at 49-47 with an 8-0 run capped by a 3-pointer by Bobby Capobianco with 6:43 to play.
Then Abrams and Rice, both guards, scored on back-to-back drives into the paint against much bigger Crusaders to give the Illini a 54-47 lead, part of an 11-1 run that stood up.
After Capobianco’s shot, the Crusaders scored just that single point over the next 5-plus minutes.
That kind of stretch was something Groce said he hoped his young team might have to fight its way through in these early games. The Illini have seven new faces on their 11-man roster, including five freshmen.
“I loved the fact that we got punched in the mouth on an 8-0 run to cut it to two, then went right back on an 11-1 run,” he said.
Illinois opened the second half playing fast, running at the Crusaders. But over the first 6½ minutes, all that pace did was turn an eight-point halftime lead into a nine-point edge at 45-36.
Then the Crusaders started climbing back.
Alex Peters’ layup in traffic on the baseline made it 47-39 with 9:06 to play, and the game felt closer than that.
Groce said this week that Valparaiso’s size would test Illinois. The Crusaders have four players who are 6-10 or taller, including 7-0 center Moussa Gueye, and guard-heavy Illinois has just two, 6-11 Egwu and 6-10 freshman Maverick Morgan.
But the Illini held the Crusaders to nine offensive rebounds, most of them late in the game, and just four second-chance points.
Gueye had just two rebounds and didn’t score a point.
Ekey ended a sometimes ugly, physical first half with a rainbow of a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Illini a 33-25 lead.
Points were looking unlikely on the possession. Abrams fed Ekey with an inbounds pass with just two seconds left on the clock. But the 6-7 forward spun quickly and fired the fade-away.
“He didn’t panic, made a good read,” Groce said. “I thought that was a big momentum swing.”
Just a minute earlier, Valparaiso had closed to within three at 28-25 on a pair of free throws by Coleman.
Star of the game: Rayvonte Rice, Illinois, 18 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists
Bertrand watch: 14 points on 4-10 FGs (including 2-3 3s) and 4-6 FTs, 6 rebounds, 1 assists, 3 turnovers in 35 minutes
Up next: Bradley at Illinois, 5 p.m. Sunday
TV: BTN (delay at 2 p.m. Monday)