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Meyers Leonard opens up after Illini loss

Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger shoots over Illinois’ Meyers Leonard second half. Leonard scored game-high 21 points. | Jay LaPrete~AP

Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger shoots over Illinois’ Meyers Leonard in the second half. Leonard scored a game-high 21 points. | Jay LaPrete~AP

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Updated: March 23, 2012 8:22AM

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The carnage continued for Illinois in an 83-67 loss to No. 8 Ohio State on Tuesday. But afterward, it wasn’t coach Bruce Weber spilling his guts. Sophomore center Meyers Leonard took his turn.

Leonard, who led Illinois with a game-high 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting and had five rebounds, opened up about his emotional outburst during the loss Saturday at Nebraska.

He defended his coach, even though Weber criticized Leonard — among others — during a postgame rant Feb. 15 after the Illini lost to Purdue 67-62 in Champaign.

“He cares so much about this team and the players, and he puts in countless hours with the staff,” Leonard said. “We’ve been through so much together. It’s very tough.

“It’s been hard, especially for me. Sometimes I feel like I take some of the weight on my back, being one of the better players. I’m 19 years old, and I have a lot coming at me at one time that I haven’t been accustomed to.”

Leonard let the pressure of living up to expectations, the all-but-foregone conclusion that Weber likely will be fired after the season and the Illini’s losing streak get to him at Nebraska. Leonard started tearing up while the Cornhuskers went on a 36-4 run, then sobbed on the Illinois bench. Nebraska ended up winning 80-57.

“It just hit me like a ton of bricks,” Leonard said. “Coach ­Weber has cared so much about me personally, and even when I was a recruit. I’m tired of people saying negative things about coach Weber, the rest of the coaching staff and our team. They’ve cared, and they’ve got us prepared. It’s been us [who have failed].”

It was Illinois’ sixth consecutive loss and ninth in the last 10 games, a stark contrast to the last time these teams met, Jan. 10 at Assembly Hall. Behind Brandon Paul’s career-high 43 points, the third-best single-game performance in school history, Illinois upset the Buckeyes 79-74. It seemed that the Illini were going to put together a nice run in Big Ten play.

But Illinois (16-12, 5-10 Big Ten) hit the skids, and its only victory since then came Jan. 31 against then No. 10-Michigan State at Assembly Hall.

Ohio State took a 28-8 lead almost midway through the first half, and it was 40-18 with 4:26 to go.

The Illini didn’t have any energy until late in the first half when Leonard went on a run by himself, scoring six consecutive points. He led the Illini with 14 first-half points.

“I think a lot of it had to do with Ohio State and the young kids came in and had energy,” Weber said. “There has to be a pride on the defensive end, but it starts with mind-set, effort and pride.”

Deshaun Thomas led Ohio State (23-5, 11-4) with 19 points, and William Buford had 17 points. D.J. Richardson added 12 points for Illinois.

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