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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — If he’d gotten to Assembly Hall just a few minutes earlier, Illinois center Meyers Leonard would likely have been on time for the shoot-round before Friday’s season opener.
As it was, he started the game against Loyola unexpectedly on the bench.
But when the temperamental sophomore got on the floor, he made the most of his time, scoring a team-high 15 points and blocking six shots in a 67-49 win over Loyola Chicago.
“It didn’t affect me at all,” the 7-foot-1 Leonard said of being benched. “(It was) more of a motivator. I thought I responded well.”
Illinois coach Bruce Weber said he hated to bench Leonard, a raw talent and the player the Illini may count on most this season. But Weber was relieved that Leonard, a frequent target of criticism for what the coach says is inconsistent play and lack of maturity, responded well.
“Meyers was a force inside. (He) really reacted,” Weber said. “He wouldn’t have done that a year ago.”
Brandon Paul added 14 points for the Illini, overcoming a cold-shooting first half.
Until the final 10 minutes, the Ramblers kept the game tighter than the Illini and their quiet crowd would have liked.
Midway through the second half, Loyola went on an 11-2 run that pulled the Ramblers to within 38-34 with 11:53 remaining.
Eight of those points came from Walt Gibbler, taking the inside space Illinois gave him for three easy buckets in the paint and a pair of free throws. He finished with a game-high 19 points.
“We cut it to four,” first-year Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “(Then) their guards and the pressure was just eating us up. We just ran out of steam.”
With the game tight, Paul, one of those guards, found some touch.
He dribbled inside, hit a layup and drew a foul with 11:22 left. He made the free throw, but on a night when the Illini seldom found their way to the line, the ball bounced on the rim before finally settling into the net.
Paul’s 3-pointer two minutes later gave the Illini a 10-point edge, followed quickly by a D.J. Richardson steal and a feed to Leonard for a dunk that inflated the lead to 50-38.
Loyola never got any closer, scoring just two points over five-minute span that saw Illinois widen the lead even further.
Freshman Tracy Abrams’ basket with 6:20 left gave Illinois its biggest lead of the night to that point, 60-40.
A year after starting four seniors, Illinois has a young roster — including six freshmen — and coach Bruce Weber has said he’s still trying to figure who will play and where his scoring will come from.
On Friday, Weber experimented. Illinois’ pregame notes distributed to the media had a 10-player starting lineup, with an “or” behind each apparent starter, indicating he might take the court first, or it might be the guy listed next.
Illinois also tried an unorthodox lineup made up almost entirely of point guards and centers.
All that experimentation bought Illinois an unspectacular 28-18 halftime lead that would have been even tighter if Leonard didn’t drop a powerful dunk just before the buzzer, mouth open in what could have been either celebration or frustration.
Illinois struggled to do much of anything inside over the first 20 minutes.
Leonard, playing against a lineup with no one taller than 6-8, had no rebounds in the first 20 minutes, and the Illini didn’t attempt a free throw.
Frustrated, the Illini turned to the 3-pointer late in the half.
Richardson hit from behind the arc to put the Illini up 15-12. Later, Tyler Griffey made a 3-pointer for an 18-12 lead.
Then, Leonard hit his 3-pointer, launching it as a last resort as the shot clock expired to put the Illini up 24-16.
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