A Myth in the Making?

It's early yet, but Jon Ekey's career at Illinois is off to a great start...

CHAMPAIGN – The crowd in the State Farm Center gave Jon Ekey a collective roar of claps and cheers as he subbed out near the end of Illinois' 77-53 win over Chicago State on Friday.

It was pretty clear Illini Nation was saying, ‘Thanks!'

Ekey scored 14 of his team-leading 19 points in the second half, pushing what had been a four-point game out of question down the stretch.

"It's great at this level, this stage, being able to do that," Ekey said.

What had been a 16-point cushion shrunk to a 55-51 Illini lead with a little more than eight minutes left.

That's when Ekey, the transfer from Illinois State, did his thing. He had two put-back dunks and two 3-point makes, reeling off a 10-0 run all on his own.

"It's great that he did that," senior Joe Bertrand said. "We needed that at that point in the game. He turned the switch on."

Chicago State coach Tracy Dildy said the game plan coming in was to play zone defense for 40 minutes and slow the tempo on offense. The plan worked for the majority of the game. The Illini took only 26 shots in the opening 20 minutes and Ekey had three points at the break.

Coach John Groce made adjustments.

"He found holes in our zone and was able to get Ekey open for the 3s," Dildy said. "That's one of the best shooters in the country. Our last thing leading up to this was, hey, we've got to know where 33 is at all times. We even doubled him at times."

That's what Ekey was brought to Illinois to do. Mostly manning the forward spot, Ekey's 3-point shooting has helped stretch defenses and open things up for others.

"It's what (the coaches) have been talking to me every day, going out there and taking the open ones," Ekey said. "Don't pass up shots. It's just been a work in progress that keeps building up into what it's been."

Ekey has scored 19 points in each of the last two games. That's more than he posted in any contest during his last season at Illinois State. But the scoring is not what has Groce most impressed.

"Even defensively, right now he's on pace to have the highest defensive grade out of any of the players in the two years I've been here," Groce said. "That's pretty amazing. He's only been here since June. You've got to know what you're doing."

Ekey's play, Groce said, validates what he's telling his players, gives credibility to what he's demanding in practice.

Ekey's play is the reward, for both the team and the individual, for all the hard work put in.

"At the end of the day players earn that," Groce said. "He's certainly earned it, not just because he's making shots. That's great and it's a great thing for us and for him and he's really good at it. We want him to continue to take open shots, but he does so many other things defensively and rebounding that show up on film that you can't put a price tag on those."

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