Eastern Kentucky can’t overcome late run by Illini

Eastern Kentucky coach Jeff Neubauer had a good feeling halfway

through Sunday’s game against Illinois.

”At halftime, I really felt we’d win the game,” Neubauer said.

”Our defense was good enough to win the game.”

Brandon Paul scored 17 points, Tracy Adams added 13 and the No.

10 Illini pulled away late to remain unbeaten with a 66-53 victory

over Eastern Kentucky.

In a game between undefeated teams, the Illini led by 11 early

but needed a late 12-2 run to gain control and help John Groce

become only the second coach in Illinois history to win his first

12 games. Groce matched the school record for the best start by a

first-year coach set by Fletcher Lane in 1907.

”I usually wear navy blue, gray or black,” said Groce, who

wore an orange sport coat for the first time. ”Then coach (Lou)

Henson and I talked this summer. I told him when he came back from

Las Cruces (N.M.), I’d wear an orange coat out of respect for

him.”

Groce stood for pictures before the game with Henson, the

legendary Illini coach who made the orange wardrobe his

trademark.

Illinois, off to its best start since opening the 2005-06 season

15-0, was sluggish on offense, going 6 of 23 from the 3-point line

with 20 turnovers.

”Obviously, we didn’t make as many 3s as we’d like,” said

Groce. ”Sometimes that happens. That’s when you have to rely on

defense and rebounding.”

Illinois never trailed thanks to holding Eastern Kentucky (9-1)

to 36-percent shooting overall. The Colonels shot 27 percent from

the 3-point line and 38 percent from the free throw line.

”I’m really, really proud of our effort,” Groce said. ”Our

effort for 40 minutes was outstanding. We had a nastiness on the

defensive end. We packed our defense and had it ready to go.”

The Illini also controlled the boards with a 42-23

advantage.

”I’m going to be driving home in my car proud of these guys for

their effort and toughness,” Groce said. ”When you defend like

that, rebound and play hard, it’s fun to coach and watch

them.”

Joseph Bertrand chipped in with 11 points for Illinois.

Corey Walden scored 21 points and Glenn Cosey had 11 for the

Colonels, who came in riding the school’s best start in 66 years.

Eastern Kentucky hadn’t won nine straight games since the 1964-65

season.

Illinois stretched its regular-season, non-conference winning

streak at home to 34 games, but the Illini have been unable to

duplicate their strong road performances at home. Illinois rolled

through the Maui Invitational, winning its first title there to

break into the Top 25, and an 11-point win at Gonzaga last weekend

lifted the Illini into the top 10.

But the team’s play has been underwhelming during the home

schedule.

The Illini raced to a 17-6 lead but had trouble putting away the

Colonels. The Illini were 2 of 13 from the 3-point line with 10

turnovers in the first half. Eastern Kentucky scored 11 points off

those turnovers to keep it close.

Had it not been for the poor shooting, Eastern Kentucky might

have taken the game to the wire.

”We’ve been much better defensively,” Neubauer said. ”We’ve

invested so much time in our defense. I’ve not done a good enough

job with our offense. It showed up tonight.”

The Colonels cut the margin to 42-38 on a three-point play by

Walden, but moments later Adams scored seven points during the key

surge for the 54-40 lead.