|1st half||2nd half||final|
A 22-point victory didn't seem possible midway through a rough-and-tumble first half, but Penn State took Illinois' punch and countered with a haymaker start to the second half and earned every bit of a 74-52 victory in Champaign on Sunday night. Shep Garner led the Nittany Lions with 16 points, albeit on 14 shots. No matter though, as his teammates combined to shoot 61 percent from the floor and all five PSU starters finished in double figures. Tony Carr, for his part, added 15 points, six rebounds and six assists.
Everything pointed towards disaster in the first half. Josh Reaves picked up his second foul five minutes into the game and sat the remaining 15 minutes of the half. Leron Black had nine early points to pave the way for Illinois early lead, but picked up his second foul with just under 12 minutes to play. It was an opportunity for Mike Watkins to establish control down low, but he picked up his second less than a minute later. Penn State struggled to contain Illinois' off-ball screening offense and fell far behind in rebounding without the nation's fifth-leading defensive rebounder. Illinois racked up nine offensive boards in the first half, leading to nine second chance points. By comparison, Penn State grabbed nine total rebounds in that same span. Were it not for Jamari Wheeler's (+8 scoring margin) and Julian Moore's (+7) contributions from the bench, the Nittany Lions would have been in big trouble.
Instead, opportune shooting and fortunate breaks afforded Penn State the lead at the break. An airballed Carr three fell to Wheeler, who found a wide-open Garner for his second three of the half to pull PSU within one. Then on the ensuing inbound after a Brad Underwood timeout, Mark Alstork stepped over the baseline. Carr took advantage with a tough finish down low to give the Nittany Lions what felt like an undeserved 37-36 lead at the break.
That momentum carried over to the second half, particularly on the defensive end. Illinois didn't muster a single score until the 12:42 mark, by which point Penn State had opened up an 11-point lead. The floodgates opened from there. Whatever Pat Chambers told his team to inspire them to rebound in the second half worked wonders. The Lions hung with Illinois on the glass in the second half and shot 53% to dust their hosts in a dominant second half capped by dunks, on dunks, on dunks. Reaves and Watkins shook off foul trouble rust and scored eight second half points apiece.
Illinois came into the game 14th in the conference in defensive two-point field goal percentage. It showed on Sunday night, especially without Michael Finke's (concussion) 6'10" frame available. Penn State attacked the paint and made 74 percent of their twos against the depleted Illini frontline. This offense is finally producing good looks on a consistent basis (20 assists on 30 field goals) and converting at the rim, long a problem for this team dating back to last season.
Job done. Penn State, sitting at 18-9 and 8-6 in conference play, has the opportunity to play itself onto the bubble with four games remaining against four teams ahead of them in the Big Ten standings. First up is the anticipated return fixture against Ohio State on Thursday night. The Buckeyes will have revenge on the brain in their hunt for the conference championship. Conversely, a season sweep of a potential conference co-champ would look mighty fine on the Nittany Lions' résumé.