IOWA CITY — Ladies and gentlemen, Jon Ekey.
Make that Jon Three-key.
Actually, what Illinois fans love to call the senior forward on social media is “3key” — perfect for a guy with a well-honed stroke from beyond the arc. It’s an undeniably cool nickname for a role player who spent three years at Illinois State before signing on for one final season of college ball with the Illini.
On Saturday night, in a mad scramble of a finish to a sloppy but exciting game, Ekey earned every ounce of that cool in Illinois’ 66-63 upset victory against 24th-ranked Iowa.
His long ball with .3 seconds left broke a 63-63 tie, ending the Hawkeyes’ 30-game home winning streak against unranked opponents.
“It was definitely the biggest shot of my life,” Ekey said.
Kind of hard to believe, but it took until the last regular-season game of his college career for Ekey to win a game at the buzzer for the first time. None at ISU, none in high school, none even before that.
After it was over, Ekey stayed on the court for a Big Ten Network interview, then spent a couple of precious minutes with his delighted mother, Jill. The real fun started when he entered the locker room and was instantly mobbed by his teammates.
“It was crazy,” he said. “It was awesome.”
At 18-13 overall and 7-11 in Big Ten play, the Illini still have no shot at the NCAA tournament unless they win the conference tourney in Indianapolis.
They’ll watch the Penn State-Minnesota game Sunday with great interest. If PSU wins, Illinois will be the seventh seed in Indianapolis and open against the Nittany Lions on Thursday. If Minnesota wins, the Illini will be the ninth seed and open against Indiana, also on Thursday.
But it seems likely they’ll receive an NIT bid at worst. For a team that was 3-10 in the Big Ten not long ago, that’s an accomplishment.
Win or lose, this was going to be a lot better performance by Illinois than it gave the previous time it took the court. That 31-point defeat at home to Michigan was hideous.
From the start against the Hawkeyes (20-11, 9-9 Big Ten), the Illini were in position to chase down a victory. They opened the game with an 8-0 spurt and led, barely six minutes in, by a commanding score of 20-6.
Then the offense went haywire, as it so often has this season. Iowa held the Illini without a field goal for nearly eight minutes and closed the first half on a 28-9 run.
Still, the Illini fought through it, as coach John Groce had assured they would after the Michigan debacle.
They got balanced scoring from Rayvonte Rice (15 points), Nnanna Egwu (14), Ekey (12) and Kendrick Nunn (10).
Far more important, they held the Hawkeyes, who came in averaging 83.3 points, far below their usual output.
The Illini ended a three-game losing streak against Iowa and moved to 6-1 this season — and 13-3 overall under Groce — in games decided by five points or fewer.