CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Waves of adversity kept hitting Gonzaga. First it was Illinois’ deadly shooting, which revved up nearly 16,000 orange-clad fans inside Assembly Hall. Then it was the emergence of 7-foot-1 center Meyers Leonard, which coincided with Bulldogs’ center Robert Sacre exiting temporarily with a tender neck.
Next up was Gonzaga’s turnovers, many unforced, and Sacre fouling out. Finally, freshman guard Gary Bell Jr. departed with a right knee injury.
Through it all, the 19th-ranked Bulldogs managed to stay within striking distance but they didn’t play clean enough down the stretch, falling to the Illini 82-75 on Saturday. The victory could elevate Illinois (8-0) into the Top 25.
“Every time we made a run Illinois did a great job of answering,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Down the stretch way too many silly turnovers and we gave them a couple of dump-down (passes) at the end of the shot clock.
“Great game, great energy, both teams played hard, but I thought Illinois did a nice job stepping up and making plays.”
Sacre and Bell Jr. went down in nearly the identical spot on the court, both pursuing loose balls in the second half. Sacre immediately grabbed his neck and went to the bench for a few minutes. After scoring 14 points in the first half, he only had two in the second, a 12-footer jumper just before the shot-clock expired, bringing GU within 69-62 with 4:13 left. He fouled out on GU’s next possession.
“My neck got pulled back, but it’s all right,” he said.
Bell Jr. drove the lane and scored to trim Illinois’ lead to 71-64, but he hobbled off the court less than a minute later. “When I dove for the ball, everybody dove and I got a knee to my knee,” he said. “I twisted it a little bit, but it’s fine. It bugged me for a while, but after I iced it it feels a lot better.”
Gonzaga (5-1) lost this one much earlier. The Bulldogs led 6-4 early, and then spent the last 36 minutes chasing the Illini. Several times they caught up or made it a one-possession game, but they never took the lead as Illinois matched every Gonzaga run.
Illinois led 38-36 at half after David Stockton banked in a 3-pointer just before the buzzer. Kevin Pangos’ layup on GU’s first second-half possession tied it, but the Illini scored nine of the next 11 points. Sacre, who dominated the first half, only attempted two shots and picked up all five of his fouls in the second.
Leonard heated up, making 7 of 9 shots in the final 17 minutes to finish with 21 points and six rebounds.
“We didn’t want him getting back to his left shoulder and he got to his left shoulder a couple times,” Few said. “Rob probably needed to get around and keep the ball out of there, instead of guarding him after he got the ball.”
The Zags kept threatening, closing to 52-48 on Bell Jr.’s 3-pointer, 58-56 on Pangos’ only 3-pointer and 62-58 when Elias Harris made a pair of free throws with 6:55 remaining. D.J. Richardson answered with two free throws and a key 3-pointer from the wing and Leonard added a dunk and 12-foot fall-away to give Illinois breathing room.
During that stretch, Gonzaga committed four of its 10 second-half turnovers. Illinois capitalized with an 8-2 edge in points of turnovers in the second half.
“We, especially me, had a couple of turnovers that really took the wind out of our sails,” said Stockton, who finished with nine points and three steals, but committed four turnovers.
Pangos (11 points, three assists) and Bell Jr. (nine points) held up well in their first road test, but the Zags had trouble keeping tabs on guards Richardson and Brandon Paul. Richardson made four 3s and had 19 points, one short of his career high. Paul chipped in 13 points, five assists and four rebounds.
“Their motion is so hard to guard. (Coach Bruce Weber’s) guys sprint and move and come off multiple screens and he teaches his guys how to read screens,” Few said. “Two times we got caught on dunks when we were chasing Richardson and Paul around screens. That’s why we went zone, and it worked for a while.”
With Sacre struggling in the second half, Harris became GU’s primary option and he delivered 12 of his 19 points. He knocked down a 3-pointer but did most of his damage driving to the basket. He made 8 of 12 free throws, 7 of 9 in the second half.
“That’s the best team we’ve played,” Harris said. “I think they’re a little underrated. They have a bunch of really good players.”