Illinois sophomore center Meyers Leonard didn’t start against Iowa on Sunday, but he was still largely responsible for finishing off the Hawkeyes.
The 7-foot-1 Leonard came off the bench to lead Illinois to a 65-54 victory over Iowa before an announced crowd of 16,322 at Assembly Hall.
He scored 22 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, blocked two shots and had two assists to help Illinois end a six-game losing streak while also extending its winning streak against Iowa to seven games.
Illinois also has won 22 of the last 23 games against Iowa at Assembly Hall, including 11 in a row.
“Not starting doesn’t really have any effect on the game overall,” said Leonard, who recorded his eighth double-double this season. “But for energy and kind of lighting a fire under me, it definitely did.”
The loss kept Iowa from winning three Big Ten games in a row for the first time under second-year coach Fran McCaffery.
It also lowered Iowa’s records to 15-14 overall and 7-9 in the Big Ten heading into Wednesday’s game at Nebraska.
Illinois won for just the second time in the last 11 games and improved to 17-12 overall and 6-10 in the Big Ten.
Iowa scored the game’s first five points, but Illinois responded with an 18-3 scoring run to seize the momentum.
Leonard made an immediate impact after entering the game early in the first half. He made a dunk off a fast break to expand Illinois’ lead to 13-5 with 12 minutes left before halftime.
He also made a traditional 3-point play with 5:03 left before halftime, giving Illinois a 25-14 advantage.
Leonard scored 15 points in the first half and made all seven of his free throws. He was 8-for-8 from the free throw line overall.
“He was a handful for anybody,” McCaffery said. “We don’t have a big team and they took advantage of it.
“They went to him early. But I thought his biggest impact was on the glass.”
Iowa went to 6-5 senior guard Matt Gatens early and often and he responded by scoring 15 of his 22 points in the first half.
Gatens made all four his 3-point attempts in the first half after combining to make 19-of-27 treys in the previous three games.
However, Gatens struggled to find open looks in the second half against an Illinois defense that was designed to contain him. He only took four shots in the second half and made one.
“They weren’t leaving me at all no matter what I did or where I was,” said Gatens, who combined to score 63 points in Iowa’s last two games against Wisconsin and Indiana. “I was over near their bench and (Illinois) coach (Bruce) Weber was really making an emphasis of it after I hit a couple in the first half.
“I tried to use myself as a decoy. I tried to use myself as a screener. I probably didn’t do that enough. I probably should have done a little bit more of that and get some other guys open looks.”
The former City High star still scored in double figures for the 84th time as a Hawkeye and for the 22nd time this season.
Gatens made 6-of-11 field goal attempts, including 5-of-6 from 3-point range Sunday.
“He’s a pro, that’s what I think of Gatens,” McCaffery said. “To shoot the ball with those percentages the way he was being guarded, he’s a pro.”
Illinois expanded its lead to 13 points in the second half only to see Iowa trim it to five points on a pair of free throws by sophomore forward Zach McCabe with 3:36 remaining.
Illinois then made six consecutive free throws in the final 54.9 seconds to secure the victory.
Sophomore guard Devyn Marble was the only other player for Iowa to score in double figures with 10 points. Freshman guard Josh Oglesby scored nine points, all of which came in the second half when Illinois was keying on Gatens.
Junior guard Brandon Paul, who leads Illinois in scoring with a 14.7 average, also didn’t start Sunday’s game. But he responded off the bench much like Leonard did by scoring 17 points.
“We just made it a point to come out and compete for our team,” Paul said. “(Not starting) didn’t really matter to us at all.
“At the end of the day we got a win. And we came in with a lot of energy. Everyone stuck together.”
Reach Pat Harty at 339-7368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball