CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Fresh off its first loss of the season against UNLV and with No. 9 Missouri looming on Thursday, Illinois could have used an easy win against Cornell.
Monday night's 64-60 victory was anything but easy for No. 25 Illinois.
Meyers Leonard had 19 points and a career-high 16 rebounds, overcoming a back injury to lead the Illini.
After trailing for the most of the game, Illinois (11-1) was sparked by D.J. Richardson's nine points in the second half and narrowly avoided its second consecutive loss.
"We were gritty down the stretch and found a way to win," Illini coach Bruce Weber said. "The last stretch of the game I thought we played harder. Finally, we picked up the intensity and did a better job defending."
Josh Figini scored all 14 of his points in the first half to lead Cornell (4-5). The forward sat out the last 7 minutes of the half after picking up two fouls and was limited the rest of the game.
Illinois opened the second half 1 for 13 from the field and fell behind 42-36, then put together a 14-6 run to regain the lead. The teams exchanged leads until the final minute, when Richardson hit a pull-up jumper with 17 seconds left to put Illinois ahead 62-58.
Cornell hit six 3-pointers, including three by Figini, to jump out to a 24-14 lead. Led by several baskets from Leonard, Illinois tied the score 32-all by halftime.
Leonard's big first half — 15 points and nine rebounds — allowed Illinois to stay in the game as it struggled with its outside shooting against Cornell's zone defense.
"I thought our kids really played hard," Cornell coach Bill Courtney said. "We had some opportunities in the game, and whenever you come in to a hostile Big Ten environment and have opportunities, you have to take advantage of them."
It looked as if the Illini might have been without their starting center when Leonard went to the locker room 5 minutes into the second half after getting hit in the back. But he returned a few minutes later, still grimacing as he checked back into the game.
Leonard, who was held to four points and three shot attempts in the second half, said the injury was a strained back and that the pain was manageable.
"I just iced it and came back out," Leonard said. "I'll be fine, I'll fight through it."
Richardson, the team's leading scorer, scored 17 points, 11 in the second half.
"He's been our leader and most consistent guy," Weber said. "He's grown up a lot. He had a great freshman year, a very average at best sophomore year and he's learned from it."
Brandon Paul broke out of a scoring slump with 15 points on 4-of-8 shooting for Illinois. Sam Maniscalco continued to struggle, however, going 1 for 7 and finishing with five points.
In the last four games, Maniscalco is 9 for 36 from the field.
"One thing we talked about is getting some rest for (Maniscalco)," Weber said.
Cornell's Chris Wroblewski, who grew up in Highland Park, Ill., scored 10 points and had six rebounds.
The starting five led the way for Illinois, with the bench only contributing a combined 41 minutes and being held without any points. Depth has been a problem for Illinois this season — the reserves have been held to single digits in scoring in four of the last six games.
"They've got to give us energy," Weber said. "They can't worry about scoring. They don't have to go in and make a play. I've got to be careful subbing in too many at a time."
Illinois outrebounded Cornell 42-25 and had 13 offensive rebounds. There were eight lead changes and the score was tied nine times.
"I think we could have had a better game today," Richardson said. "We're happy with the win, but we have to work on things and get better. We have to get more from our bench."