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EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) – Drew Crawford had little time to maneuver, and Illinois center Meyers Leonard knew it.
With Northwestern trailing Illinois by a single point, Crawford rebounded a missed free throw by the Illini’s Myke Henry with 6 seconds left and quickly headed up court. He tried to find a path to the basket, but when he attempted a shot, the 7-foot-1 Leonard was waiting.
“I kind of read it and knew he was going to put it up, and I got the block,” Leonard said Wednesday night after the Illini had pulled out a 57-56 victory thanks to his swat just before the buzzer.
“I knew he wouldn’t have time to get a pass off, so I was just waiting for it. He had his head down, so I pretty much knew it was coming. I just read it and used my athleticism for the block.”
The Illini had an eight-point lead after a free throw by Brandon Paul with 1:43 left. But JerShon Cobb hit a free throw and then Alex Marcotullio and John Shurna — 0-for-6 and scoreless in the second half at that point — hit 3-pointers to bring the Wildcats within one with 36 seconds left.
Leonard hit one of two free throws with 29 seconds left to put the Illini up two, but Crawford tied it on a tip-in with 17 seconds remaining.
After Paul drove the middle and couldn’t connect, Henry was fouled on a rebound follow-up. He made the first free throw but missed the second after a timeout, and Crawford grabbed the ball.
“Got the rebound. Coach wanted us to push it up the court,” Crawford said. “I got to the basket. Probably should have gone all the way, but I stopped short. It was a good block.”
Leonard led the Illini (13-3, 2-1 Big Ten) with 12 points. Paul and Joseph Bertrand added 10 each.
Shurna, the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 18.6, had 17 first-half points but just three in the second under tough defense from Paul.
“I wasn’t going to let him get anything easy,” Paul said. “I don’t think he scored that whole second half until that one time. I left him for a split second, which was my mental mistake, and he got a 3.
“I didn’t help off of him at all. I didn’t want to gamble. I let him catch it a little bit. Otherwise I was all over him.”
Shurna said Paul’s second-half defense wasn’t the only reason he managed only three points in the final 20 minutes.
“I missed shots,” he said.
So did most of the Wildcats, going 6-for-25 after the break.
“In the second half they really clamped down on us, and we weren’t able to score,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said.
“They did a very good job defensively. We just weren’t able to get untracked.”
Northwestern (11-4, 1-2) had a 10-point lead late in the first half on Shurna’s 3-pointer and led by five at the half. But Illinois used an 11-0 run to take the lead early in the second half when the Wildcats went more than 8 minutes without a basket.
Illinois has won 21 of the last 24 meetings with Northwestern.
The Illini played without guard Sam Maniscalco, averaging 9.9 points, who was out with a sore ankle.
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