Illinois led from start to finish against Richmond, but it wasn't easy. Coach Bruce Weber was grateful to pull it out.
"It was a good win. You knew it wasn't gonna be easy."
The Illini scored 16 of the last 19 points to create a comfortable 18 point lead at the half 37-19, but the Spiders used their quickness to penetrate and dish to open shooters and disrupt Illini offensive plans. They hit 10 of 14 shots at one point in the second half to reduce the lead to a nervous six point margin. Weber was reminded of the Las Vegas tourney three years ago.
"I told them at halftime, three years ago we were up 16 on Utah, and they beat us at the buzzer. They knew they were gonna come back. We held our own and got the win, that's the most important thing.
"I thought the most important part would be the first five minutes of the second half, and we matched them 8 to 8. But they scored way too many points and gained confidence. They came out loose and free in the second half. They're 19 down, what are you gonna do?"
Meyers Leonard played 35 minutes and dominated with a double-double. He ran the floor, posted up strong and played solid defense. He hit both lefty and righty hooks in addition to his dunks and layins. And he made 8 of 10 free throws. He finished with 22 points, 11 rebounds (6 on the offensive glass), 5 blocked shots and 2 assists.
"All we had to do was iso with Meyers inside. He's playing like you hope he will. He did a nice job. He blocked shots, we got the ball to him. He's posting up stronger and staying in the post, which was important for us."
Senior transfer Sam Maniscalco seconded Leonard with 19 points. More importantly, he hit big buckets when the Illini needed them most. With the score 55-49, he hit two difficult driving banks to re-establish a 10 point margin. He swished a clutch turnaround jumper in the lane with the shot clock running down. And he hit 4 of 5 free throws down the stretch.
"Sammie made some big shots. He understands angles just like their little guys understand angles and how to get to the rim and get fouled. He made some big plays.
"The thing that Sammie brings is, he's fearless. He missed a free throw, and he's so mad. That's one thing he prides himself on. He wants to get to the line. You need somebody who will know how to make a play at the end of shot clocks and the end of games. And he gets you into your stuff."
D.J. Richardson added 15 points, 11 in the first half. Tyler Griffey scored 8 and pulled down 5 rebounds, and Joe Bertrand had six. No other Illini scored. Four freshmen played, but they all seemed lost against the complicated Richmond schemes. Tracy Abrams was saddled with fouls throughout, and Nnanna Egwu found it rough going on the inside.
"You've got to play Nnanna more, he just got a little shook. He got one blocked, then he missed a layup. I told all of them, him, Mike Shaw, they'll be fine. This was a hard-fought game. It's a hard road game to play against Richmond. They're running all this stuff, and they're just trying to figure out how to be freshmen. It isn't easy; we need all of them."
Brandon Paul is considered the Illini's best player, but he was nowhere to be found. He missed his two shots, and his one free throw attempt late in the game barely hit the front iron.
"We really need Brandon to start playing. He's got to come to play."
The win gave Weber # 300 in his coaching career. He was pleased but regretted it didn't happen sooner.
"It should have been last year. It's good to win it in a game that's important. I told them it's the biggest game of the year. And tomorrow night is the next biggest game."
Illinois battles in-state rival Illinois State for the championship Wednesday night at 8:30 pm Central time. The Redbirds are much improved over last year and will be fired up to beat their big brother.
"Now it's Illinois State in the championship game. We want to win the championship, but it's not gonna be easy. Our coaches came in and said Illinois State played hard. We're gonna have to match that intensity."
Former Illini assistant Tim Jankovich has made rapid improvement through quality recruiting.
"They struggled last year, but he's got them playing at a high level. We know they can make threes. Rutgers cut the lead to three, but they found a way to win. The game I watched against Quincy, they had 13 threes in the game. And they were running all over the place."
The Illini have no time to enjoy the amenities of a world class resort. That will come Thursday, hopefully after they have survived the Redbirds.