The last time the Penn State Nittany Lions came to Assembly Hall to face the Illini in 2011, just under 3,500 fans were in attendance as Champaign faced one of its worst winter storms in recent years. It was déjà vu when Penn State returned to Assembly Hall this time around as a blizzard once kept some fans at home, with just under 8,000 fans in attendance. Also like last time, the result of the game was the same as the Illini won by a final of 64-59.
After a jumper by Paul that gave the Illini a 39-35 lead with 12:08 left in the game, both teams went on a 3:12 scoring draught broke by a Paul lay-up. Paul finished with 16 points and reached a milestone by scoring his 1,500th career point.
“I had no idea,” Paul said. “I think it’s cool. I think it’s better we got the win.”
The key moment of the game came when Illinois sophomore big man Nnanna Egwu stripped the ball from Newbill and ran the floor for a fastbreak slam, pleasing the Champaign crowd who made it to the game through the snow. The Fighting Illini jumped back out to an eight point lead with 7:36 left to play.
Junior Jermaine Marshall kept Penn State in the game with a three-pointer to bring them within three with 2 seconds remaining in the game.
“They just wouldn’t go away, they kept fighting,” Groce said. “They made some big three’s late to close the gap. And they fought. I love their attitude, their disposition, their passion.”
But it was all for naught, as Richardson hit a pair of made free throws to hold onto a 64-59 win.
Illini coach John Groce was glad his team came out on top of an ugly day and ugly game in Champaign.
“Really proud of our guys for grinding it out,” Groce said. “Each guy that played made a play or two that contributed to the win.”
The Nittany Lions were once again without their star point guard Tim Frazier, who earned preseason Big Ten First Team honors before rupturing is Achilles early in the season, sidelining him for the year. Frazier led Penn state in scoring (18.8 ppg) and assists (6.2 apg) last season.
Penn State entered the contest with an 0-13 Big Ten record but surprised Illini early on the defensive end. The Nittany Lions came out with energy on the defensive end utilizing quick switches to their advantage. Penn State’s early 2-3 zone flustered the Illini.
Penn State held Illinois to two points in the game’s first seven minutes as they went on a 9-2 run to start the contest. In that span Illinois turned it over four times.
Penn State sophomore D.J. Newbill and senior Sasa Borovnjak combined for the team’s first 11 points. They finished with 12 and 17 points respectively.
Momentum shifted when Illinois finally forced turnovers of their own, running off an 8-2 run capped off with an and-one drive by senior D.J. Richardson off of a diving steal by fellow senior Brandon Paul.
As the turnovers began to pile up for the Nittany Lions, the Illini took advantage by attacking the paint. Illinois forced 10 Penn State turnovers and drew 15 free throws in the first half, making nine. The Fighting Illini entered the locker room with a 29-20 lead.
Both teams began to attack the paint and draw fouls in the second half, with the refs quick to blow their whistles. The game turned into a free throw contest late. At one point there were seven straight possessions with a free throw. Penn State coach Patrick Chambers hinted at his displeasure for the officiating.
“They had 36 free throws. Our defense isn’t that bad.”
Groce wasn’t exactly pleased either.
“The game was an odd game with 52 fouls called there was no flow.”
The win was the Illini’s fifth straight, the longest current streak in the Big Ten. They improved to .500 in the Big Ten at 7-7. Paul believes the Illini just kept fighting through their struggles.
“When the rough stretch began people started doubting us,” Paul said. “We just kept fighting, every game we came, we competed and you can’t just show up one game and compete like Indiana or Minnesota when we’re on the road, you gotta show up every game.”
Illinois will have to push the bar even higher in their next game as they take on the Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor this Sunday. The Illini will look to avenge the 74-60 loss they suffered at the hands of Michigan on January 27th. With the Wolverines losing three of their past five games, this might just be the Illini’s best chance to pull off the upset.