Leonard Comes Of Age As Illini Win Opener

The Fighting Illini basketball team opened its season on a positive note with a 67-49 win over Loyola of Chicago Friday night at the Assembly Hall. The game was closer than the score indicates as the feisty Ramblers battled to the end over the heavy favorites. Meyers Leonard had a coming out party with 15 points and 6 blocks.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber realizes his team will struggle scoring points at times, but he continues to be excited about how hard his guys play basketball.

"The biggest positive is we won, but the thing I'm happiest about is how hard we played. We had 48 on the MATTO, 13 blocked shots. Meyers Leonard was a force inside. He was really active.

Weber explained why Leonard didn't start the game.

"He was a little late for shoot-around. He's been so good for 10 straight days, I hated to not start him. I told him that. But what if next week four guys show up late? Now you've got chaos. The best thing is he reacted in a very mature, positive manner. Had a great attitude. He wouldn't have done that a year ago."

Leonard seemed to accept his punishment well, his career highs in points and blocked shots serving as proof. He feels he has been making progress in recent practices, and it is carrying over to the games.

"There was one practice where honestly I took over and was scoring literally almost every possession. Easy layups, sealing hard, just being a big man. It really felt good; I felt more comfortable in the post.

"It's carried on through the last 5 to 7 days. They were waiting to see how I respond, and I feel I have kept going fairly well. I've just got to keep working hard and be the player I can be."

Freshman point guard Tracy Abrams started the game and continued his fine play. Weber was pleased with his rookie.

"I thought Tracy was very good again. He really pushed the ball, gives us great energy, 7 rebounds, 5 on the offensive end. Two steals, 4-5 shooting. That's pretty good for your point guard."

Brandon Paul likes Abrams's game.

"He plays like a bulldog. He loves to hustle and guard."

It was not an easy win for Illinois. Despite their solid defense and 13 offensive rebounds, the Illini struggled making shots, especially in the first half. Loyola played tough defense, giving up only 28 first half points. And they cut the Illini lead to 4 points midway through the second half. Rambler coach Porter Moser was proud of his players but recognized the Illini had too much depth for them to handle.

"You've got to give Illinois credit; they keep coming. Even when we tried to make a minuscule run, they just kept on answering. We're proud of our guys; they battled. We knew that depth at the guard spot was gonna be an issue.

"We cut it to four at around the 30 minute mark. But they kept rotating their guards, keeping their guards fresh, and it wore us out. We had one big run second half, but they applied the pressure and our guys were gassed. I've got to give them credit for turning up the heat and maintaining that throughout the second half."

Paul seconded Leonard with 14 points. He added three assists and three rebounds. He seemed to turn his game up a notch when the game tightened in the second half. Tyler Griffey was the only other Illini to reach double figures, scoring 10 points.

Junior guard D.J. Richardson couldn't buy a bucket, shooting 1-7 from three and ending with 5 points. But unlike last year, he found other ways to contribute according to Weber.

"The thing with D.J., a year ago if he doesn't shoot well, the rest of his game goes out. But he guarded, he was 10 on the MATTO, he dives on the floor and gets a pass to (Leonard) for a layup. That's the kind of experienced maturity I've been talking about since the beginning."

At one point, Weber used point guards Abrams and Sam Maniscalco together, giving him two ball handlers and passers. He also got a good look at Leonard and freshman backup Nnanna Egwu together. He explains why he went to the latter combination.

"I went with Nnanna and Meyers together. Their big guys were pretty good. It was a challenge for our big guys. I thought Mike Shaw struggled a little bit at times and then got tired and got some fouls. Then we give Nnanna a shot. Both of those guys are very mobile."

As expected, the Illini must continue to work and improve to be the team everyone wants them to be. This won't be the last time they have to make a late push to pull out a win against a lesser opponent. But as the youngsters gain experience and let go of their nervousness, it should get easier as time goes along.

The Illini play again Monday night against SIU-Edwardsville at the Assembly Hall.

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