Illinois State's Tony Lewis, right, breaks up a shot attempt by Missouri State's Adam Leonard (10) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Jan. 1, 2010, in Springfield, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) By Charlie Riedel
Illinois State's Tony Lewis, right, and Missouri State's Justin Fuehrmeyer (00) battle for a rebound during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Jan. 1, 2010, in Springfield, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) By Charlie Riedel
Missouri State's Kyle Weems, right, tries to steal the ball from Illinois State's Tony Lewis during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Jan. 1, 2010, in Springfield, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) By Charlie Riedel
Missouri State's Kyle Weems dunks the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois State, Friday, Jan. 1, 2010, in Springfield, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) By Charlie Riedel
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) -- From his long 3-pointer on the move to a toe-tapping dance along the sideline, Adam Leonard came up with the biggest plays for Missouri State.
Like there was ever a doubt.
The always-cool junior scored seven of his 20 points in the final 72 seconds, and Kyle Weems added 19 points to help Missouri State hold off Illinois State 68-64 Friday night.
"It's his nature," Weems said of Leonard. "He's something."
Gritty and gifted with a quick release, Leonard has been the glue to Missouri State's great start to the season, draining 3-pointers, playing steadily at the point and never flinching when the game gets tight.
The transfer from Eastern Kentucky saved his best for last against Illinois State, hitting a long 3-pointer, a floater down the lane and a pair of game-sealing free throws to secure a gritty victory over a determined team.
"It's amazing," Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich said. "What a tremendous shooter. What a tremendous release, confidence. I'm extremely impressed with him."
Missouri State (12-1, 2-0 Missouri Valley Conference) didn't get much production from its bench, at least offensively, and never could pull away from the Redbirds despite several good-sized runs. The Bears, thanks to Leonard and a boost from Weems, came up with the big plays at the right time, pulling out their biggest win so far in a remarkable turnaround season.
Jermaine Mallett added 15 points and 11 rebounds for Missouri State, which got 64 points from its starters in its first home game since Dec. 9.
"It was really a grind-out, physical game on the defensive end," Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin said. "Both teams really executed, made them miss their shots down the stretch. It was just a matter of us having the confidence and staying the course."
Illinois State (10-3, 1-1) clawed back after numerous Missouri State runs, hitting just enough shots to keep it close at the end. The Redbirds had several chances in the closing seconds but lost track of Leonard and had a charging call go against Osiris Eldridge late to come up just short.
Jackie Carmichael had 14 points despite early foul trouble, Eldridge added 13 and Dinma Odiakosa had 11 for Illinois State.
"We kept battling and found a way to kept it close," Jankovich said. "In the second half, two or three times we could have folded -- the crowd's in the game, momentum -- and I couldn't have been prouder. I thought it was an outstanding effort."
An 11-win team a year ago, Missouri State has used scrappy defense and interchangeable parts on offense for its best start since opening 13-1 under Steve Alford in 1996-97.
The Bears, who have beaten Auburn and Tulsa, responded to an overtime loss to Arkansas on Dec. 22 by opening the conference season with a decisive road win Tuesday at Evansville.
Illinois State represented Missouri State's biggest game of the season, with another coming Sunday against conference favorite Northern Iowa.
Against the Redbirds, the Bears traded scoring spurts in a fast-paced game, never able to pull away after pushing the lead near double digits several times.
Leonard made sure Missouri State pulled through.
Lloyd Phillips gave Illinois State its first lead since the opening minutes with a hard drive with 90 seconds left, but Leonard answered with a long 3-pointer off a screen at the top of the key to put the Bears up 62-61. Carmichael hit 1 of 2 free throws and Leonard came through again, using a fake to set up a floater that put Missouri State up two.
Illinois State then worked the ball to Eldridge, who put his head down for a drive and was called for an offensive foul when Justin Fuehrmeyer slid in front of him near the basket. Leonard saved the next possession with a tightrope walk along the sideline on a long pass, and Weems knocked down two free throws with 10.2 seconds left.
Still, it wasn't over.
Phillips scored on another drive to cut the lead to 66-64, and Illinois State immediately fouled Leonard with 2.2 seconds left. He finally sealed it, calmly hitting both free throws.
"I love it," Leonard said. "That's what I want to do."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)