CHAMPAIGN – Illinois won its fifth straight on Thursday night, defeating Penn State 64-59. But the game was anything but pretty. The Illini were out-shot (21 field goals to 17), out-rebounded (34 to 25) and 52 fouls were called between the two teams. John Groce’s team did the little things, like making 23 free throws and scoring 14 points off turnovers, in the end to come out with a win.
“They don’t always look sexy and pretty, but it is what is and we found a way to make some plays,” the Illini coach said.
With all eight Illini who entered the game scoring, Groce had praise for his whole team after the game.
“Each guy that played made a play or two that contributed to the win…you can go down the line,” he said. “I’m proud of these guys for grinding it out.”
Like the roads outside the Assembly Hall, Illinois (20-8, 7-7) was sloppy in the early going against the Nittany Lions (8-18, 0-14). Snow fell in droves on the roof, but under the dome the Illini’s shows fell short.
After D.J. Richardson scored the game’s first points, the Illini went 5:39 without another basket. During that span the hosts turned the ball over on four of five possessions, shot just 1-of-7 and allowed Penn State to grab a 9-2 lead.
A 3-pointer from Richardson with 13:09 left in the first got Illinois back in the flow of the game. The Illini went on a 6-0 tear over a one-minute stretch to tie the game at 11-11.
The game evened out during the second 10 minutes of the first half. Illinois held on to the ball better and forced more turnovers from the Nittany Lions, who ended the half with 10 turnovers, three more than the Illini. The discrepancy in turnovers helped the home team create more on the offensive end.
Illinois and PSU traded baskets for a good stretch of the first half, but in the final few minutes the Illini were in charge. A three from Brandon Paul -- one which made him just the 10th Illinois player to score more than 1,500 points in his career -- as well as a string of free throws led the Illini to a 29-20 lead over Penn State at halftime.
Despite Paul’s milestone, Richardson was the most impressive Illini in the first half, scoring 11. Illinois had seven players score in the first half, but only three made more than one shot, Richardson, Sam McLaurin (6 points) and Myke Henry (4 points).
The start of the second half did not go much better than the start of the first for Illinois, however. The team missed its first three shots and watched Penn State go on a 7-0 run in the first two-and-a-half minutes, closing the gap to 29-27.
“Give them credit,” Groce said. “They were physical, they played hard and they played with a lot of passion.”
Jermaine Marshall was hot in the opening minutes of the second. He scored eight in the first four minutes of the half, capped by a three at 15:40 make it just a one-point game, 31-30. Illinois got a response from Paul and Henry, who each hit threes to keep the Nittany Lions from grabbing a lead again.
Penn State continued to be held at arm’s length thanks to Paul. The senior scored 13 in the second half alone, finishing the game with 16 points.
What stood out to Groce, however, was Paul’s effort on defense.
“Brandon made some big plays on defense…he’s sacrificing his body and playing with a sense of urgency,” he said.
The flow of the game was broken up, however, and both teams were in the bonus with eight minutes to play. Fouls kept either team from making any runs, but finally opened up again in the final three minutes with the Nittany Lions making a charge at Illinois.
“Seemed like every possession down was a foul. That definitely disrupted our rhythm,” McLaurin said.
With 2:40 left Nick Colella hit a big three to make it 52-49. Paul came up big for the Illini, however, responding with a three of his own 20 seconds later. Richardson hit a pair of free throws shortly after to increase Illinois’ lead to 57-49.
The Nittany Lions would not go down easily, though. An offensive foul on Richardson with one minute to play gave PSU a second chance at scoring, which Marshall capitalized on with a three. Penn State made two more threes in the waning seconds, one by D.J. Newbill and the second by Marshall, it wasn’t enough to catch the Illini, however, as they made 8 of 12 free throws down the stretch.
“They wouldn’t go away, they battled until the end,” Groce said. “I have a lot of respect for Pat [Chambers] and the way his kids fight.”
Chambers returned the praise, saying Groce was doing a great job in his first year. He offered little else in his brief post-game press conference, however, simply saying the result came down to “too many fouls.”
Despite the fouls and the uneven rhythm to the game, Groce saw a team that was playing within his system. For that, he said, he felt very proud.
“Guys have bought into getting better, which is huge,” he said. “They’ve bought in at a high level…and if we play well the things we want become byproducts.”
Paul said this win was a sign of the team’s maturity. And as if to prove his team-oriented mindset, the senior had no idea of his milestone in scoring.
“I think [the milestone] is cool, it’s better we got the win,” Paul said.
Next up for Illinois is No. 7 Michigan in Ann Arbor on Sunday. The Wolverines beat Illinois in Champaign on Jan. 27, but McLaurin thinks the Illini have a better chance this time around.
“Last time we didn’t play to well, but this time we hope we can play better,” he said.