DJ Richardson is quickly becoming my favorite Illini; photo by Cary Frye
After Saturday’s icky loss to UNLV at the United Center, questions naturally began to spring up about whether the Illini are really a team that could be successful this year. The polls think they still have potential, as the Illini are still ranked in both polls (24 in coaches, 25 in AP). Though there were many moments tonight that were reminiscent of Saturday’s horror, in the end the starters made sure tonight’s game against Cornell would result in a win. I really think the score should have been 64-58, but Shonn Miller tipped one more in at the buzzer, so the final score was 64-60.
Down by as many as 10 points in the first half, Illinois was able to make adjustments and keep the game closer in the second. Despite Cornell’s 10 3s and Illinois’ 14 turnovers, Illinois was able to remain in the game at all times. Once it got down to a 10-point deficit and the 3s continued to rain down from the sky, I was worried that the UNLV loss could spell disaster for the rest of the season. Josh Figini was 3 for 3 from behind the arc, and Drew Perry also contributed three 3s. Luckily, the guys stayed poised and never let things get out of hand.
On Saturday, Meyers Leonard played like sludge and the team lost. Tonight, he almost had a double double in the first half (9 rebounds, 15 points). In total, against Cornell Leonard had 19 points and 14 rebounds to log his fourth double double for the season. He also had 3 blocks, and it clearly made the difference. There was a moment where he headed to the locker room with what appeared to be some sort of back tweak, but he came back out a few minutes later to continue he Leonard domination.
Leonard can’t do it all alone, of course, and his four other starters were right there with him. Tyler Griffey had 7 rebounds and 8 points; after a shaky start DJ Richardson had 17 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists; and Brandon Paul took over again as the clock started to wind down and totaled 3 assists, 15 points and 3 rebounds. Sam Maniscalco could have done a little bit more, but he had 5 points and 6 assists, and made two free throws with just 6 seconds to go to seal the win.
Aside from the starters, there is nothing to report, and yet again the Illini bench scored a whopping zero points. Nuh uh, this isn’t good – and it’s also the reason why the game was way too close for way too long.
A win is a win and I will take it and run, but now I’m getting scared for the rest of the season. Coming up next, the Illini will head to the annual Bragging Rights game in St. Louis. Missouri is super hot right now, so I’m just going to go ahead and give it to the Tigers. However, a win would be HUGE for Illinois in St. Louis.
The important thing is that Illinois got out alive tonight, and can still head into conference play with just 1 or 2 losses. And, a loss to Missouri is not going to hurt them in terms of RPI or any respect, though a win could really give them a boost in so many ways. That game will be on Thursday at 8pm on ESPN2.