CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With 4:13 left to play Saturday, Gonzaga center Robert Sacre hit a short jump shot that pulled the Bulldogs to within seven of Illinois, and gave the 7-foot center a sweet dose of relief.
He hadn’t scored a point since late in the first half, and punched the air hard.
His relief lasted less than a minute, drained away by a quick basket by Illini center Meyers Leonard and then a foul — Sacre’s fifth — that all but locked up an 82-75 upset for Illinois (8-0). It was the first loss of the season for Gonzaga (5-1).
Sacre picked up all five of his fouls in the second half, frustrated by a rotating cast of Illini big men.
“They were more aggressive in the second half, that’s what always happens when you’re more aggressive — you’re going to get more calls,” he said, praising in particular 7-1 sophomore Meyers Leonard, who had a game-high 21 points.
“Runs the court like a deer. He’s a great player,” Sacre said. “I actually respect him a little more, I feel.”
Sacre had 14 points with 4:22 left in the first half but didn’t score again until that late jumper. He finished with 16.
The combination of Leonard, 6-8 junior Tyler Griffey and a pair of freshmen — 6-11 Nnanna Egwu and 6-8 Ibby Djimde — frustrated Sacre. Between them they had 12 fouls.
D.J. Richardson had 19 for Illinois, while Brandon Paul added 13.
Elias Harris led Gonzaga with 19 points and had a game-high eight rebounds. Kevin Pangos added 11.
Early, Sacre had his way, using his 14 first-half points to keep the Bulldogs close through the first half.
But after Sacre went cold — frustrated by the rotating cast of Illini around him — the Illini went on a 7-0 run early in the second half that gave them breathing room and broke what had been a 38-38 tie.
Griffey capped it with a short jumper with 15:57 left in the game for a 45-38 lead.
“Every time we made a run Illinois did a great job of answering,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
Ten minutes after Griffey’s jumper, it was Richardson’s turn.
First he took the ball on the break after a turnover, and drove straight toward the basket and Sacre. The ball didn’t drop, but Sacre fouled Richardson — sending Sacre to the bench with his fourth and Richardson to the line. He hit both free throws for a 64-58 lead with 6:47 to play.
Just over a minute later, Richardson buried a 3-pointer that gave the Illini a 67-60 lead.
Sacre finally found his touch again, hitting the short jumper that would be his last shot as Gonzaga closed to seven at 69-62.
On the next possession Leonard quickly hit a jump shot that erased Sacre’s two points and kept the lead at 71-62.
Then Leonard drew the foul that sent Sacre to the bench for good.
“He just kind of threw his body into me, and kind of gave me a forearm a little bit,” Leonard, in understated fashion, said.
There was nothing understated about the moment, though. The packed Assembly Hall erupted as Sacre walked to the bench.
Illinois rode the momentum of that loud home crowd and carried a lead through much of the first half. And even a stretch that looked ripe for an Illini meltdown ended with Illinois in front by eight.
Leonard, Egwu and Griffey all drew their second fouls in a short stretch and, with just under nine minutes to play, all headed to the bench. Leonard and Griffey stayed there the rest of the half.
The Bulldogs tied the game at 26 on a jumper by with 7:05 to play, and looked ready to run past an Illini lineup that included three freshmen and no one over 6-8.
But Richardson and Paul, juniors that help anchor a young team, carried Illinois.
First Richardson hit a three that fired up the crowd to give Illinois a 29-26 lead. Then Paul turned David Stockton’s turnover into a basket, followed quickly by another 3 by Richardson, and Illinois was up 34-26 with 6:03 left in the half.
“We were able to survive it,” said Illinois coach Bruce Weber, who played a dozen players by halftime Saturday, including five freshmen. “You could see a little nerves but I just kept saying fight and battle.”
The Illini led 38-36 at the half, the first game this season the Bulldogs have trailed at halftime.
Few said the game and the crowd gave Gonzaga its toughest test of the season.
“It was a great road environment for our guys, it was the first one of the year,” he said. “I thought we played well enough at times.”
Gary Bell Jr. left the game late with what Gonzaga coach Mark Few said appeared to be a twisted knee. He didn’t return.