Illinois used a wave of 3-pointers and strong shooting in its last two wins to move into the top 10. However, on a night the 10th-ranked Illini were struggling, a late layup from a banged-up D.J. Richardson and hard-nosed defense kept their unbeaten start going.
Brandon Paul scored 14 points and Richardson overcame a shoulder injury to add 11 and help Illinois hold off Norfolk State 64-54 on Tuesday night.
"I don't think over the course of the 40 minutes our energy, our focus, our effort level was where it's been," Illinois coach John Groce said.
The Illini were shooting 46 percent from the field and averaging 11 3-pointers a game coming in but were just 35 percent (21 for 60) overall and 6 for 23 (26 percent) on 3s against the Spartans. Illinois also went 16 for 27 (59 percent) from the free-throw line.
"What we tried to do was run them off of the 3-point line and try to make them beat us with 2s rather than 3s," Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans said.
Rashid Gaston scored 12 points and Pendarvis Williams added 11 for Norfolk State (6-6), which led for much of the first half.
Gaston had a chance to tie the score at 49 with just under eight minutes to play. The forward launched a turnaround jumper in the lane that found nothing but Sam McLaurin's outstretched hand and Illinois clung to its two-point lead.
A minute later Richardson fired in a 3 from the top of the key that put Illinois up 52-47. He finally secured the win with a layup that put the Illini up 56-51 with just under two minutes to play.
"We came in and gave a great effort for about 35 minutes and they took over about the last five minutes," Evans said.
Richardson left the game late in the first half after a collision that sent him to the floor. He skipped second-half warm-ups after what the Illinois sports information director said was a badly bruised shoulder but came back early in the half. He played 13 minutes in the second half and scored seven key points.
The Illini opened a 39-29 lead in the second half's opening minutes. Five of those points came on a 3-pointer and a short jumper from Tracy Abrams.
"They really turned it up, which is great," Groce said. "Or you could say they should be playing that hard all the time."
Abrams collided with Malcolm Hawkins in the final three minutes and, like Richardson earlier, limped off the court. He returned about a minute later but had what Groce said was a bruised shin.
The Spartans led much of the first half after opening a 5-0 lead on two baskets by Williams.
"Not to take anything away from Norfolk State but we played down to our competition today," Paul said.
Groce said the Illini will have to make their shots and play harder for the undefeated streak to continue. Illinois will face another unbeaten, Eastern Kentucky, at home Sunday.
"We'll get an opportunity on Sunday," Groce said. "We'll have to play better than we did tonight, for sure."