CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — The lowest point of Illinois’ six-game losing streak reduced Meyers Leonard to tears.
One weekend ago, the 7-foot-1 sophomore center sat on the bench in Lincoln, Neb., with his head under a towel, crying as Illinois was blown out by the Cornhuskers.
On Sunday night, coming off the bench, Leonard delivered 22 points and 14 rebounds in a 65-54 win that ended the streak and, for the moment, relieved the pressure on an Illini team (17-12, 6-10 Big Ten) that has heard the speculation about coach Bruce Weber’s future increase as its own postseason prospects dwindled.
“Man, absolutely,” a relieved Leonard said. “We had our heads down a little bit through the season.”
Teammate Brandon Paul, another regular starter coming off the bench, scored 17 points.
Weber was just relieved to see at least a glimmer of the team he started the season with, the one that was on top of the Big Ten in early January after knocking off then-No. 5 Ohio State.
“That’s what we are and that’s what we should have been, but we forgot about that,” Weber said. “We were that in the beginning, and in the middle we forgot what our identity is, and I did, too.”
At least as impressive than the 39 points Leonard and Paul delivered, Weber said, were the 35 team rebounds — a dozen more than Iowa — and the defensive job the Illini did on Matt Gatens in the second half.
Coming into Sunday, the guard had averaged 31.5 points a game in back-to-back wins for Iowa (15-14, 7-9) over ranked teams, Wisconsin and Indiana. He hit 14 of his 20 3-point shots — 70 percent — in those wins.
But after a 15-point first half, Paul, D.J. Richardson and a handful of others covered him up over the final 20 minutes, limiting him to seven points on 1 of 4 shooting.
“The way they defended him and to score 22 and shoot those percentages? He’s a pro,” Hawkeye coach Fran McCaffery said.
Iowa’s back-to-back wins had fueled both momentum and talk that the Hawkeyes might win a place in the National Invitation Tournament.
Looking for some way to break the losing streak, Weber based on his starting lineup on a series of competitions during practices after Tuesday’s loss at Ohio State. That left both Leonard and Paul on the bench.
The plan, Weber said, wasn’t any sort of master stroke on his part.
“If you don’t come to practice to compete, then you shouldn’t start. That’s the only thing I thought about,” he said. “If that’s what it is, then I’m smart.”
Leonard at first said losing his starting spot didn’t affect him much, but then added “as far as energy and lighting a fire under me, it did.”
Leonard subbed in just over four minutes into the game with the Illini down 5-2.
His teammates figured out pretty quickly that, with a minimum 4-inch height edge on anyone the Hawkeyes put on the court, getting the ball to Leonard made sense.
By halftime, he had 15 points, seven rebounds and a perfect 7 of 7 start from the free-throw line.
“He was a handful for anybody. We don’t have a big team, and he took advantage of it,” McCaffery said. “They went to him early. His biggest impact was on the glass. We had a couple of times when we stopped him, but we couldn’t get the ball back.”
Once Leonard entered, the Illini went on a 13-0 run. Leonard capped the surge with a dunk with 12:01 left in the half. He also made his teammates look like much smarter passers.
At one point, Paul fed Leonard as he stood wedged between three much-shorter defenders under the basket. The center turned what looked hopeless into a bucket and, with the foul he drew, a three-point play for a 25-24 lead with 5:05 left in the half.
Four minutes later, Sam Maniscalco fired up a pass that badly missed Leonard as he flew toward the basket for a would-be dunk. Leonard reached to his left, controlled the ball on the fly and dropped in in for a bucket that gave the Illini a 34-23 edge they took to the locker room.
“Throughout the game, they did a good job looking for me,” Leonard said.
Illinois led 34-23 at the break and weathered a Hawkeye run that closed the gap to four early in the second half on Aaron White’s long jump shot.
And the Hawkeyes closed to within seven twice in the last six minutes, but each time, Paul answered with a 3-pointer.
Roy Devyn Marble added 10 points for Iowa.
The win keeps Illinois’ postseason hopes alive as it gets ready to host No. 11 Michigan Thursday before closing the regular season at Wisconsin.
Weber, whose team had its first double-digit win since a 17-point Dec. 11 victory over Coppin State, said Illinois could still find itself playing after the conference tournament.
“It’s not over,” he said.
The Hawkeyes travel to Nebraska Wednesday before wrapping up the regular season at Northwestern.
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