It was the battle of unbeatens in Champaign…that no one expected to be unbeaten. And this was the game that was supposed to tell us if Eastern Kentucky is any good. So, are they?
…I’ll get back to you on that. But I think the answer leans towards ‘yes.’
A 9-0 run in the last 10 minutes proved to be the difference, as the Illini pulled away late from Eastern Kentucky, remaining undefeated with a 66-53 win over the visiting Colonels.
Poised to be a battle between two great three-point shooting teams, both struggled from the floor, shooting a near identical 6-22 and 6-23, with EKU having the one fewer miss. Glenn Cosey was the only Colonel to hit multiple threes, but finished with just 11 points, which ties a season low for the junior. But Eastern Kentucky stayed in the game thanks to a game-high 21 points from Corey Walden off the bench.
The second half was marked by two big swings before the final run by the Illini. A 5-point halftime lead for Illinois quickly ballooned to 14, before the Colonels back with a 16-6 run, narrowing the gap to four. That’s when Illinois went on their final run, pulling away for good.
There’s no doubt that staying with 13 of a top-10 team is great for the Colonels, but there are still a few questions. EKU gets nearly doubled up on the boards, but forces 20 turnovers against the Illini. Illinois doesn’t play up-tempo, which will keep games closer anyway, and there’s some question as to how good Illinois is, but EKU holds a hot 3-point shooting team to 26% behind the arc.
All in all, I’m not sure it matters. From a perception point of view, the Colonels played a Big Ten, top-10 team tight on the road in front of 15,000+ fans. It can be spun both ways. But they weren’t blown out.
A big positive to take out of this game has to be the play of Walden. 21 points ties a career high, and he did it on just 13 shots from the field. In comparison, Mike DiNunno also took thirteen shots, and finished with just two points. Cosey also took 13 shots, scoring 11 points.
And I mentioned this before, but I think it needs to be repeated: The Colonels forced 20 turnovers against the Illini. They turned the ball over just 10 times. This is one of the areas Murray State excelled in on defense that made them so tough to beat last year.
EKU stays on the road, traveling to North Carolina A&T Wednesday.