CHAMPAIGN – First-year Illinois coach John Groce liked his team’s play much better than his outfit.
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 on Sunday night.
In a game between undefeated teams, the Illini led by 11 early but needed a late 12-2 run to gain control and help 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 arc 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.
Illinois St. 87, Morgan St. 68: At Normal, Jackie Carmichael scored a career-high 30 points to lead Illinois State over Morgan State.
Carmichael also had a game-high nine rebounds for the Redbirds (7-3), who never trailed in the contest. Bryant Allen added 13 points for Illinois State.
Justin Black led Morgan State (3-4) with 21 points.
ISU, now 7-0 this season when scoring 70 or more points, shot 55 percent in the first half on the way to a 47-29 lead. The Redbirds were 25 of 32 from the free-throw line with Carmichael going 12 for 13.