Published December 11, 2011
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Coppin State head coach Ron Mitchell knew he would have his hands full with Meyers Leonard.
In an attempt to slow the 7-foot-1 Illinois center, Mitchell and Coppin State turned to a zone-heavy defense, but the hot-shooting Illini handled it with ease in an 80-63 win over the Eagles on Sunday night.
"I felt that the best way to play Illinois would have been with a zone," Mitchell said. "I think — I know — that wasn't the best thing."
Illinois made a season-best 10 3-pointers, which helped open things up for Leonard, who finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds for his second career double-double.
"He's 7-1 and I have a midget squad," Mitchell said. "I have to try and do the best I can with what I have."
Having faced No. 9 Connecticut, Purdue and Oklahoma already this season, the difference in height was nothing new to Coppin State.
"We've been facing matchup problems all year, that's nothing new to us," Mitchell said. "With the schedule we've played, we played against people bigger than us."
D.J. Richardson tied a career high with 20 points to lead four players in double figures, and Illinois (10-0) hung on to remain one of nine undefeated teams in the nation despite a second-half surge from the Eagles.
After Illinois jumped to a 17-point lead in the opening minutes of the second half, Coppin State went on a 20-5 run to cut the lead to 59-57. Illinois responded with a 13-3 burst after Leonard and Coppin State guard Taariq Cephas both received technical fouls when the two got tangled up and had to be separated.
Following the pair of technicals, Illinois head coach Bruce Weber switched to a four-guard rotation, and the group turned to Leonard to provide enough offense down the stretch.
"I think our guys are smart enough at that point of the game to know where the ball needs to go," Weber said.
Tony Gallo scored 21 points for Coppin State (3-5), which also made 10 3-pointers.
Sam Maniscalco and Brandon Paul each scored 12 points for the Illini.
Weber said officials warned the coaches before the game about being extra careful with incidents on the court after the fight between Xavier and Cincinnati players on Saturday, which led to the quick technicals for Leonard and Cephals.
"They weren't going to have any trouble," Weber said. "I don't think Meyers said anything but he made some faces. Meyers just needs to hold his cool."
Leonard credited Maniscalco with pulling him aside to calm him down after getting the technical.
"In a big game, something crazy could have happened," Leonard said. "I just need to keep my head on straight."
Mitchell's attempt at slowing Leonard included the first career start for 6-8 freshman Brandon St. Louis.
"I found the tallest guy on our bench and I hoped he would keep Leonard at bay," Mitchell said.
The starting backcourt trio of Maniscalco, Paul and Richardson combined for nine of Illinois' 10 3-pointers, most of which came against Coppin State's zone.
"They did a tremendous job of getting the people they wanted to shoot the basketball," Mitchell said. "If I had to choose anybody to shoot those balls from the outside, it was them."
Maniscalco had five assists and no turnovers, while the rest of the team had 21 assists and nine turnovers.
Weber said he expected the tough matchup from the road-tested Eagles.
"It was a little scary there for a while, and that's what we talked about," Weber said. "They were going to be ready to play. They've been to a lot of places and aren't going to back down to anyone."
The 10 victories to start the season marks the best opening for an Illini team since 2005, and it is the fourth-longest winning streak for Illinois under Weber.
"I told them I was proud of them," Weber said. "We're 10-0, but we still haven't played well. We have a long way to go."