By DAVID MERCER
AP Sports Writer
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Ñ 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 Ñ 32.7 percent. Part of it was the shooting Ñ the
Crusaders missed a number of shots on air balls Ñ and part of it was
"Surprisingly, both defenses were very good tonight," Crusaders coach Bryce
Rayvonte Rice led Illinois with 18 points.
Joseph Bertrand added 14 for the Illini and Tracy Abrams had 12. Jon Ekey, a
6-7 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
Illini Center Nnanna Egwu had 10 points 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
"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
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 on 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 five-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 six and a half 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
Just a minute earlier, Valparaiso had closed to within three at 28-25 on a
pair of free throws by Coleman.