The Nittany Lions (12-10, 4-5 Big Ten) returned home to a 10,000-plus crowd Saturday afternoon for a match-up against the Fighting Illini (13-9, 3-6 Big Ten). Coming off a major loss on the road against Wisconsin last Tuesday, Penn State came out strong to try to avoid a four-game losing streak. The Nittany Lions scored 45 in the first half but struggled in the second, allowing the Illini to climb back. Penn State was ultimately able to hold on, winning 71-67.
How It Happened
Penn State won the tip but turned over early, allowing Illinois to get on the board first. Both teams flirted with the lead for a few minutes before a big steal and dunk by Josh Reaves and a three by Payton Banks got the Nittany Lions on top 19-13 with 12 minutes to go in the half. Penn State didn’t miss a shot from the floor for the first six minutes of the game while Illinois only made six of its first 14 field goal attempts.
Coming out of a Penn State timeout, Reaves blocked a jumper from Illinois’ Leron Black which the Nittany Lions rebounded and maneuvered up the floor giving Banks the chance to drain a three. On the next play Garner robbed Maverick Morgan and gave it to Terrence Samuel to lay in to put Penn State up 26-15 with 9:08 in the half, forcing Illinois to call a timeout.
Penn State started to take over as the half progressed, draining shots that Illinois wasn’t making on the other end. Where the Illini were able to go inside to get their first few points, the Lions quickly packed it in to get a few blocks but also pick up a few fouls, where they had the advantage throughout the half.
The Lions dominated the floor going into halftime, with a Peyton Bank’s three giving Penn State its sixth three of 11 attempts (55 percent) on the half. Watkins slammed the ball twice in the final two minutes and a putback by Tony Carr with one second got the Lions up a dominant 45-25 heading into the locker room. Penn State completely controlled the floor, shooting 60 percent to Illinois’ 29 percent and recording 5 blocks to the Illini’s one.
A big alley-oop from Garner to Watkins to start the second half put Penn State back right where it left off, but the Illini did what they could to climb out of a 20-point hole. The Lions controlled the first part of the second half but some turnovers on Penn State and a big three and putbacks for Illinois pulled it to within 12 just under 12 minutes left in the game.
Penn State’s field goal percentage got lower and lower as Illinois got higher, with a steal and a layup by Illinois’ Te’Jon Lucas leaving the Nittany Lions up only 6 (57-51) with just under six minutes to play. Turnovers uncharacteristic of the first-half Lions (re: Reaves hitting Banks in the head with a pass) let the Illini cut into Penn State’s lead and even though Carr hit a big three from way beyond the arc, Illinois’ Nichols was fouled on a dunk and drained the extra point to bring the Fighting Illini within three with 3:04 left.
Fortunately, Penn State was reinvigorated for the final two minutes of the game, coming up with a big offensive which ultimately put Garner on the line to drain two and give the Lions five points of breathing room with 38 seconds left. An offensive foul on Nichols gave Penn State the ball back with 22.1 seconds and Lamar Stevens caught a long lob and was fouled, and though he missed the front end of a 1-and-1 and Black slammed the final Illinois points.
On a long shot down court, Jaylon Tate was called for an intentional foul for holding onto to Garner, who made both shots. When Penn State inbounded under the basket, Carr was fouled but missed both and Illinois took the ball down for a quick three. Reaves got the ball inbounds and was fouled, but drained both to give Penn State a 71-67 win.
Player Of The Game
Shep Garner | Guard | Junior
Garner recorded 18 points, just one behind the game’s leading scorer Malcolm Hill. The junior was huge in the first half, hitting 4-9 from behind the arc all day. Garner also spent the most time on the court for the Lions, 32 minutes alongside Carr.
The Nittany Lions will look to start a win streak on Wednesday at Indiana at 6:30 p.m. on BTN. Penn State’s last game against the Hoosiers left the BJC heartbroken after Indiana hit a buzzer beater, 78-75.