On a night when the Hoosiers had to win, Anthony Leal emerges as a heart-warming revelation
For 3-plus years, the Bloomington native has been buried on the bench. Tuesday night, he had the game he's been waiting for his entire college career.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – From the time he was a very small boy, growing up down the road from the IU campus, Anthony Leal wanted to be a Hoosier. He grew up with IU basketball, watched or attended all the games, dreamed of the day he would get to don the candy stripes, the cream and crimson, play his games at Assembly Hall in front of his friends and family.
He came here as a four-star recruit, as the 2020 Mr. Basketball, ranked 124th in the nation by Rivals, 143rd by 247Sports, averaging 18.5 points his senior season at Bloomington South High School. He led his school to the state’s No. 1 ranking before the pandemic forced the cancellation of the state tournament – and everything else.
He came here to play; of course, he came here to make an on-court impact, just like his fellow Bloomington native, his idol and mentor Jordan Hulls. Instead, he’s been a bench dweller through the entirety of his 3 ½-year Indiana career. Coming into Tuesday’s game against Iowa, a 74-68 must-have-it victory over Iowa, Leal had scored a total of just 16 points his entire senior season, a total of 81 through three-plus seasons.
Then came this game, a night when Malik Reneau was carried off the floor in tears, having injured his foot/ankle early in the game…a night when Xavier Johnson, who finally looks like he’s finding his game, fell on his left arm and was escorted off the floor in tears late…a night when Kel’el Ware, returning after missing two games with an injury, hurt his lower leg and played the final minutes in significant distress.
Enter Leal, the rarely used reserve who, until this moment, was best known for his wonderful gesture of using his NIL money to pay off his sister’s college loans. Tuesday night, he went off for 13 points and seven rebounds, both career highs, as IU held on after punting away a 17-point first-half lead.
You want to talk about feel-good moments for a program that hasn’t provided many of them this season? Leal, who has waited his whole college career for a night like this, was a heartwarming revelation, knocking down threes, grabbing rebounds and defending like his life – and IU’s hanging-by-a-thread season -- depended on it.
After the game, Woodson walked into the Hoosiers’ locker room carrying the game ball, yelled “Yeah!!!!” and sent a bounce pass in Leal’s direction. Leal glanced at his prize, regarded it like a gift on Christmas morning.
“Anthony, way to step in and give us a lift,” Woodson said.