Grind & Flow

Illinois' had a good look on both ends of the court in Sunday's win against Bradley.

CHAMPAIGN – Illinois did the dirty work in the opening 20 minutes Sunday night against Bradley.

A prettier dimension was added in the second half.

Stout defense and a smothering rebounding effort helped the Illini build a double-digit lead. Then 3-point shooting and thundering dunks pushed the game out of question early as Illinois overpowered the Braves 81-55 in front of 15,849 fans in the State Farm Center.

Braves coach Geno Ford said Illinois was the tougher team. Illini head man John Groce appreciated the compliment.

"I always say tough and smart certainly beats soft and stupid," Groce said.

"Tonight I thought we were pretty tough, and I thought we had intelligence and purpose behind what we were doing. I could tell guys were really locked in."

The Braves last won at Illinois in 1929 and didn't shake the struggles on Sunday. Starting the game 9-of-32 from the field, Ford said Illini junior center Nnanna Egwu changed the way his players played offensively.

Egwu had 10 points and seven rebounds, but it was his three blocks that altered what Bradley was trying to get done.

"As soon as he did that we did just an awful job, honestly, of finishing in traffic," Ford said. "We tried to jump away, we're double clutching around the rim… You can't get a shot blocked and then the next time go into the lane looking to see where the shot blocker is."

The Illini won the rebound margin in the first half 29-12 and scored 10 points off 10 offensive boards.

Those extra chances nullified any advantage given up by missing 11 of 14 tries from 3.

All of this was frustrating to Ford, who wrote only one thing on the dry-erase board before the game – rebound.

"The backboard was the entire story," Ford, the brother of Illini assistant Dustin Ford, said. "They were way more physical. They were tougher getting to balls."

Defensively, the key was slowing Walt Lemon Jr. The senior guard entered averaging over 18 points per game, but took 15 shots and scored only a dozen on Sunday.

Groce cut off a question posed to guard Tracy Abrams, who spent most of the evening shadowing Lemon Jr.

"We're not going to get into details on that," Groce said laughing. "We don't want to let everything out. We've got a long season ahead of us."

Abrams followed his coach's lead, saying, "We just stuck with our game plan."

Ford said that plan involved-double teaming his star. Lemon Jr. made the proper reads and passes, but the shots weren't falling for Bradley. The Braves finished shooting 36 percent for the game, hitting on two of 13 takes from beyond the arc.

Groce said the defensive success could be attributed to two things.

"I think part of it is certainly the number of guys we're playing," he said. "That helps in terms of consistency and effort and execution. And I think a lot of it is right now the veterans have done it for a year."

The grind didn't quit in the second half. But the offensive flow turned on to go with it.

The Illini opened the second 20 minute frame with four 3s, two from Abrams, one from Joe Bertrand and another by Jon Ekey.

"Coach has confidence in not just me, but in everyone, that everyone can shoot the ball," Ekey, who scored a team-high 19 points, said.

The Illini entered shooting 26 percent on treys for the season. In the second half though, the team hit 7 of 11 from deep and remained consistent with attacks to the basket.

"Kind of busted the game open a little bit," Groce said, a nod to the team's 26-point lead with just over 12 minutes left to play.

Groce said the key to the offensive flourish was ball movement. For a team with multiple new pieces, Groce says he's happy with the willingness to make an extra pass and share the scoring load. Of Illinois' 28 field goals, 19 were assisted.

"These guys like one another," Groce said. "That's not like a fake deal. They really like one another."

All in all, Sunday's win came off looking like Illinois' most complete performance yet. The desired effort defensively and rebound production, a fairly consistent theme in the previous three games, was there from the jump. And the nets were ripped more frequently after halftime. It's a sign of improvement, which is always encouraging. But Groce was quick to veer talk away from the celebration. There's still plenty of room between his player's heads and the ceiling.

"As soon as you think you've got everything figured out, you get knocked off your feet pretty quickly," Groce said. "So, we're certainly humbled but at the same time I thought we did some good things today at both ends of the floor… Now it's something we've got to build on."


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