Illinois holds on to topple No 18 Gonzaga, 82-75
There was a point in the first half where things got really dicey in the Assembly Hall. With Meyers Leonard and Tyler Griffey on the bench with fouls, Bruce Weber was forced to dig very deep into his bench. Never have I seen a Bruce Weber coached team lean so heavily on first year players in a competitive game. Freshmen like Ibby Djimde, Nanna Egwu and Mike Shaw were called upon to fill the void, and for the most part were effective (they totaled five points together) but were extremely physical with Gonzaga's Robert Sacre and gave the Illini front line relief we simply havent seen in the last two years.
Even though they don't have much in the way of stats to hang their hat on in this game, the Illini freshmen were crucial in this win. Because of the foul troubles, there was a combined 43 minutes taken up by first year players. Seriously unheard of for a Weber coached team.
As important a contribution as the freshmen made, this game was really about the veterans. D.J. Richardson is coming into his own as a leader, and bounced back from his quiet game at Maryland with 6-11 for 19 points. His counterpart, Brandon Paul, had a nice game himself and a a stout stat box with 13 points, 4 boards, and 5 assists.
Sam Maniscalco stepped up down the stretch as well, to round out another tremendously productive day from the guards. Sammy had 10 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists, with nearly all of his points coming in the second half. Sam was clearly in control of the offense down the stretch of the game, and not once was there a hint of panic or indecision in his play. He flew into the Zags' defense with wild abandon and more often than not converted the lay up. On top of all that, he didn't miss a free throw. All of this combines to make me very confident about this team's chances in close games.
One of the key plays Sammy made was a dish to an open Meyers Leonard with under a minute to go, Meyers finished with a jam and more or less sealed the game for the Illini. Meyers too is coming into his own his sophomore year. Even though he was riding the bench for most of the game due to foul troubles, he still managed 21 points on 11 shots, including a sweet fade away in the face of Gonzaga's Sacre. Leonard is turning into a guy who will just get points no matter what, even with fouls, double teams and bloody knee wounds holding him back.
This might be the coming out party for the Illini this year, as they now have their first top 25 scalp, have an 8-0 start to their season, and very possibly a ranking for themselves this week. Braggin' Rights in St Louis might be a much more interesting game than anyone thought.
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