Meyers Leonard comes up big against Richmond in 70-61 win
It's a long way from home, something that's not hard to forget when you look at the Cancun Classic court tucked under the chandeliers in a Moon Palace resort ball room just a short par-3 from the Gulf of Mexico. With tapestry printed with pink flamingoes and Salsa dancers serving as the shooting background, it's still a good place for an old-fashioned rivalry. Illinois rolled past Richmond 70-61 in a semifinal game Tuesday before a crowd of 1,000 behind a monster game from sophomore center Meyers Leonard. While improving to 4-0, the Illini won their first game outside the country since playing in Puerto Rico 14 years ago. The reward was facing a state rival. Illinois State (3-1) advanced to the championship game with a 76-70 win over Rutgers earlier Tuesday. "We stopped off in Bloomington on the way,'' guard Sam Maniscalco said. "We could have played them before we came down here.'' The two teams shared the same charter flight. Now they play in the title game Wednesday (8:30 p.m., CBSSports Network). An emerging star who might lift the Illini into the top 25 by himself, Leonard finished with 22 points, 12 rebounds, five blocks, two assists and one steal. Maniscalco also had 19 points. "We came here to win a championship,'' said Illini coach Bruce Weber, who got the 300th win in his career. "It's not going to be easy. The older guys have to carry us. The young guys will come along. As they make progress, we'll be pretty good.'' Guard D.J. Richardson also scored 13 points, but the Illini weren't able to go far down the bench while the freshmen adjusted to life against tougher competition. The Illini led by 18 points in the second half, thanks mainly to Leonard "He's a monster in there,'' Maniscalco said. "He's our X factor. He's a game changer for us.'' Illinois and Illinois State don't play very often. They've met only seven times, the last game eight years ago when the Illini needed overtime to beat the Redbirds in Assembly Hall despite 20 points from Deron Williams. The Illini are undefeated against the Redbirds. It pits guys who worked in the same office, recruited players from both teams and two programs who even shared a charter flight from Bloomington to the Yucutan peninsula. Orange and blue on one side of the plane, red and white on the other. "It's kind of like going to a wedding, (sit behind the) bride or the groom,'' said Illinois State assistant coach Rob Judson, a former Illini player and assistant coach. Judson knows the Illini. When recruiting former Illinois guard Luther Head, Judson also met another future Illini. "I remember Crandall,'' said Judson, referring to the Illini freshman. "He was on his tricycle when we were recruiting Luther.'' Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich worked on the Illini staff for one year under Bill Self in 2002-03, and Jankovich shared duties with Illini assistant coach Wayne McClain and coached Sean Harrington, a guard nine seasons ago and now the director of basketball operations at Illinois. "I never like to play friends,'' Jankovich said. "I'd rather play somebody I don't know. Honestly, that part doesn't excite me. At the same time, it would be exciting for our team and our fans. "I told our team no one should have a preference. Our whole mindset is we want to win a game tomorrow night against whoever that is. We're all human, too. I'm sure, for our guys, (playing Illinois) is a little closer to home.'' Even when it happens here in Mexico. NOTE: Former Illini guard Chester Frazier, the team's video coordinator, left the program to play professionally in Germany, Weber said Tuesday. . . John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie. Illinois report card Front court -- A Oh my gosh. Sophomore center Meyers Leonard is good, and he's getting better by the day. OK, so his first real test won't come until facing Gonzaga and its bruiser, Robert Sacre, but Leonard makes Illinois a much better team. Back court -- B Sam Maniscalco surprised even his Illini coaches by giving them a scoring guard, not just a point guard. D.J. Richardson also produced, but the Illini are still searching for Brandon Paul. Bench -- C- The Illini didn't use their numbers to wear them down. Overall -- B This might be a little picky, but the Illini let Richmond back into the game after building a double-digit lead.