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The Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball team pulled off a stunning upset; as they beat the No.18 ranked (ESPN/USA Today) Gonzaga Bulldogs, 82-75. The win was a true test for the Illini as they had to find a way to defend seven foot Bulldog center Robert Sacre. The Illini best hope for guarding Sacre, seven foot one sophomore center Meyers Leonard, spent the final nine minutes of the first half on the bench.
Leonard picked up two early fouls that left Coach Bruce Weber with no other option but to sit him. In Leonard’s place, Weber threw a three man rotation consisting of Tyler Griffey, Nnanna Eqwu, and Ibby Djimde at Sacre with hopes of frustrating him. Between the three players they had 12 fouls to give, and if Sacre was going to score he was going to earn it.
The physical style of play work to perfection, as Sacre went silent from the field after racking up 14 points with 4:32 left in the first half. With Sacre shutdown offensively and the Leonard on the bench, the Illini needed to find some offensive firepower if they wanted to keep pace with the Bulldogs.
Their prayers were answered by junior guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul, between the two of them, they scored 18 of the Illini’s 38 first half points. Behind Richardson and Paul the Illini were able to grab a 38-36 halftime lead, making this the first time the Bulldogs trailed at the half on the season.
Coming out of the half, Leonard knew that his teammates had kept the Illini in it, and that it was now his turn to provide the offensive spark. “I knew I had to come out in the second half and keep my head on straight to help the team win” Leonard said. Leonard definitely kept his head on straight, after only scoring four points in the first half; he put together a 17 point second half and propelled the Illini to the win.
Richardson and Paul continued to play well in the second half, finishing the game with 19 and 13 points respectively. This win marked the Illini’s 8th win in a row, and continues their undefeated streak this season. The Bulldogs fall to 5-1 on the year and are likely to fall out of the Top 25, a place where the Illini are hoping to reach, for the first time this season.
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