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Illinois squeaks past St. Bonaventure, 48-43

Brandon Paul scored 12 points in the final four minutes Wednesday to keep No. 24 Illinois undefeated with a sloppy 48-43 comeback win over St. Bonaventure.

Paul finished off a three-point play to tied it at 41 with 2:39 left and Meyers Leonard gave the Illini (9-0) their first lead since the first half with a pair of free throws shortly afterward.

Paul, a junior guard, finished with 17 points. D.J. Richardson added 11 and Leonard had nine points and eight rebounds.

Andrew Nicholson led St. Bonaventure (3-4) with 17 points and eight rebounds.

Both teams played sloppy on offense and struggled to get good shots for much of the night. The Illini hit just 31.9 percent of their shots and the Bonnies 35.4.

St. Bonaventure went up 38-30 with 6:18 to play on a long jump shot by Nicholson.

Then, after a 3-pointer by Richardson cut the lead to 39-33, Paul took over.

First he hammered home a dunk with 3:58 to play that cut the Bonnies' edge to 39-35 and revved up what had been a quiet crowd.

After a bucket by Demitrius Conger, Paul turned a steal into a layup and, after he was fouled, a three-point play that made the score 41-38.

His second three-point play tied the game and Leonard's free throws gave Illinois its first lead since late in the first half.

Down 48-43, St. Bonaventure's had one last gasp. Nicholson tried a three and missed, and the rebound fell, fittingly, to Paul.

Illinois came into Wednesday's game with a brand-new ranking thanks to its 82-75 upset Sunday over Gonzaga, and nursing one of the last unbeaten records in the country.

After the Gonzaga win, Illini coach Bruce Weber said, in effect, that was nice but the real test will be how Illinois responds to what came next.

At halftime the Illini were down two, 26-24, and were it not for the five three-pointers they hit it would have been worse.

The Bonnies, mostly playing a lineup with no one taller than the 6-foot-9 Nicholson, nullified Illinois' biggest and, usually, best weapon, Leonard. The 7-1 center had two points in the first 20 minutes to go with two rebounds and three turnovers.

Leonard's only points over that span came on a 12-foot jump shot with 3:37 left in the half that gave Illinois a 24-22 lead, their last until his late free throws.

Inside, Leonard was frustrated by Nicholson and forward Da'Quan Cook. All of the Illini, in fact, found the going tough inside.

Thirteen of their 21 first-half shots and 15 of their 24 points came from behind the three-point line.

St. Bonaventure, meanwhile, methodically worked the ball inside to Nicholson. He had nine points at the half and, along with a dunk by Conger, keyed a 5-0 run that gave the Bonnies a 22-20 lead with 6:18 left in the half.

While Leonard struggled with the Bonnies inside, the rest of the Illini lacked an answer for a pestering, high-pressure perimeter defense that forced bad shots and turnovers. Illinois had nine of them in the first 20 minutes. The Illini were better in the second half, finishing with 13 total.