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.
Joseph Bertrand chipped in with 11 points for Illinois.
Corey Walden scored 21 points and Glenn Cosey had 11 for the Colonels (9-1), 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.
Groce wore an orange sport coat for the first time and stood for pictures before the game with Lou Henson, the legendary Illini coach who made the orange wardrobe his trademark.
Illinois stretched its regular-season, non-conference winning streak at home to 33 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.
The Colonels cut the margin to 42-38 on a three-point play by Walden. But moments later Abrams scored seven points during the key surge for the 54-40 lead.