CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois center Meyers Leonard has a skill set that has National Basketball Association general managers and scouts taking notice. On Sunday, those 7-foot-1 talents helped the Illini snap a six-game losing streak by beating Iowa 65-54 at the Assembly Hall.
The sophomore tied a career high with 22 points, added 14 rebounds and blocked two shots. He also affected numerous shots and kept Iowa out of the lane for the most part.
“He’s a handful for anybody, and we don’t have a big team,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, whose tallest starter was 6-8. “They took advantage of it. They went to him early. But I thought maybe his biggest impact was on the glass. Fourteen rebounds, six offensive. We had a couple of times we stopped them, and couldn’t get the ball back.”
Matt Gatens led the Hawkeyes, 7-9 in the Big Ten and 15-14 overall, with 22 points and made 5-of-6 3-pointers despite constant defensive attention. He’s made 24-of-33 3-pointers and 39-of-60 shots over the last four games.
“He’s a pro, that’s what I think of Gatens,” McCaffery said. “The way they defended him, and he got 22, to shoot the ball at those percentages, the way he was being guarded, he’s a pro.”
Leonard didn’t start, but made an immediate impact when he checked in with 15 minutes, 42 seconds to play and his team down 5-2. He blocked two shots and scored four points in a 13-0 run and the Illini never trailed again.
“I got a couple of blocks, a couple of rebounds, and that got me going,” Leonard said.
Leonard’s presence was felt not only by his numbers in the box score and by Iowa’s lack of success in the paint.
“We did short-arm a couple of things,” Iowa freshman forward Aaron White said.
“I don’t know that we were scared to go in there. We were just thinking of him coming from the other side of the lane. When that happens, you have to go up strong and try to dunk it or lay it up strong. If he gets a couple, he gets a couple.”
Illinois improved to 17-12 overall and 6-10 in Big Ten play. The victory kept the Illini from becoming the school’s first team to go winless in February in more than 100 years — 1906-07, to be exact.
Iowa’s miserable string of success at the Assembly Hall continued. The Hawkeyes have now lost 11 straight games here, going back to 1999. Iowa is 1-22 in the building since rallying from a 22-point deficit to win in overtime, 91-88, in January of 1987.
Gatens’ fifth three of the game was his only second-half field goal as D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and others worked to limit his touches.
“We were just more in tune with him the second half,” Paul said. “He plays hard, and he makes shots. We just kept pushing back, and making sure we had someone fresh on him.”
The Hawkeyes trailed 34-23 at halftime. Gatens had 15 points and his teammates eight. Gatens was 5-of-7 from the field the first half, his teammates 3-of-20.
“The first half, it was a struggle,” McCaffery said.
Iowa opened the second half with an 11-4 run to cut the deficit to 40-36. But after official Ted Valentine overruled Mike Eades on a call under the Iowa basketball and gave the ball to Illinois, Paul made a 3-pointer on the possession and the Hawkeyes didn’t make a serious run after that.
“Big,” McCaffery of the call.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball