For 20 minutes, the Illini looked primed for a letdown Saturday, but overcoming periods of poor play is a trait a championship team needs to have. And great defense helps, too.
Illinois ended up blowing out Penn State, 75-55, Saturday afternoon in Champaign, but through 20 minutes of play it looked like the Nittany Lions were going to give an improving Illini team a run for its money. It was 28-26 at the half, the Illini holding just a two-point edge despite a terrible shooting performance by the Lions. The Illini weren't shooting too well themselves, with neither team reaching double digits in made field goals in the half. Illinois was letting a Penn State team that's struggled to win games so far this year hang around.
But the second half was a different story, and while the Illini's 47 points certainly helped, it was the defense that's played so well all year that showed up. And a bit of toughness didn't hurt.
"Coach has been doing a great job of getting everyone tougher," forward Jon Ekey said in a post game press conference. "Practices are always hard. We go at each other a lot, but that's just how it is. ... We do that in practice so we know when we get in games like this that we're ready."
Penn State boasts two of the conference's best scorers in guards Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill, who combine to rank as the nation's top-scoring backcourt. The Illini shut them down, allowing the duo that entered the day averaging a combined 36.2 points per game to score just 17.
"Those two guys are really, really talented," head coach John Groce said in his post game press conference. "We've played against a lot of really talented guards, so that's been good. Missouri's guards, Oregon's guards, (UIC's Kelsey) Barlow in Chicago, (Indiana's Yogi) Ferrell the other day, and there's others. We've played against some really, really good perimeters. Our guys did a good job on those two guys. ... Their team's really good offensively. You look at them statistically in a lot of categories nationally, they were right up there with all the teams that we have played thus far. We knew it was going to take a great effort. I think our guys really responded to that challenge well today."
Frazier went for 10 and Newbill for just seven, though that was in part thanks to his second-half ejection. Illinois freshman Kendrick Nunn shoved Newbill following a made basket and Newbill retaliated with a swing. A "skirmish," as Groce called it, ensued and Newbill was subsequently tossed from the game. It was a big blow to any hopes of a Penn State comeback — the game wasn't quite over at that point, with plenty of time left and the game hardly out of reach. But it was the Illini that responded following the height of the day's chipiness, going on a big run to balloon their lead.
It was limiting the high-scoring guards that was the Illini's most impressive defensive feat Saturday. But the win and how they won that revealed the Illini have certainly improved this season. In their only two losses to Georgia Tech and Oregon, it was second-half collapses that took away chances at a statement. And though a win over Penn State, a team that suffered its sixth loss Saturday, isn't a statement by any means, the Illini overcame that first-half adversity and refused to be affected by the so-called skirmish. They even weathered a not-as-great performance by Rayvonte Rice, who scored four points fewer than his conference-leading average of 19 points per game.
"We try to be unflappable as we can be," Groce said. "We understand that you get thrown curveballs in life, you get thrown curveballs in a possession, in a game, in a season. And we want to make sure that we handle those with great toughness and great togetherness, we don't get too high, we don't get too low. And I think this year's team's done a really good job of that."
A two-win start to Big Ten play is important for the Illini, who face the conference's big dogs — No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 5 Michigan State — in three of their next five games. But two games is barely a dent in the Big Ten schedule, as Groce will be the first to tell you.
"Now Round 2 is over," Groce said. "It's an 18-round deal."