Meyers Leonard, Illinois prove too much for Gonzaga
By PATRICK Z. McGAVIN Special to the Sun-Times December 3, 2011 7:41PM
Illinois’ Meyers Leonard (12) gets inside Elias Harris (right) and Robert Sacre. Illinois is 8-0 for the first time in five years. | Robert K. O’Daniell~AP
Updated: January 5, 2012 8:32AM
CHAMPAIGN — Meyers Leonard arrived in Champaign a year ago trailed by as many questions as answers. He was a freakishly talented but unproven 7-footer who played mostly against small schools in central Illinois.
He has very quickly come of age.
Confronting one of the country’s best players in Gonzaga 7-footer Robert Sacre, Leonard scored 17 of his career-high 21 points in the second half as the Illini throttled the No. 19 Bulldogs 82-75 in front of a raucous crowd Saturday at Assembly Hall.
Illinois’ 8-0 start is its best in five years, and the team broke a five-game losing streak against ranked opponents.
“I thought there was great energy in the building and on the court,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “It was a great early-season game. They made plays, and we made plays.”
Though he was frustrated by foul trouble that forced him to play only eight minutes in the first half, Leonard hit 9 of 11 shots from the floor. He revealed an impressive array of drop steps, medium-range jump shots and jump hooks. Twice he threw down hammer dunks off teammates’ penetration.
“It all goes back to my teammates finding me,” said Meyers, who scored 12 of the Illini’s final 20 points in the last seven minutes.
“I think they have more confidence in me and started looking for me. They took over in the first half, and I did my thing in the second half.”
Leonard added six rebounds and a monster block of Sacre. He also limited Sacre (16 points) to two points in the second half.
On one of his two missed shots, off an inbounds pass to beat the shot clock, Leonard intuitively tipped the ball in for a 76-67 lead with 1:26 left.
“He’s super athletic and runs the floor like a deer,” Sacre said. “I should have respected him a little more, I feel.”
Guard D.J. Richardson drilled four three-pointers in scoring 19 points. He also limited Kevin Pangos, coming off a game in which he made nine three-pointers, to 11 points.
Guard Brandon Paul continued his resurgence with 13 points. Guard Sam Maniscalco had 10 points, including a critical three-point play with 2:25 left.
Forward Elias Harris led the Zags (5-1) with 19 points and eight rebounds.
“Nobody in America runs motion offense as good as Bruce does,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I thought we played well enough at times. Every time we made a run, Illinois did a great job of answering.”