It's staggering to think that the Penn State team that rolled into Champaign and went nearly wire to wire against a much improved Illinois team on Saturday afternoon is the same one that started their Big Ten campaign 0-10. And it was free throw shooting, off all things with this team, that made the difference to give the Nittany Lions (11-16, 4-12) their second conference road win of the season. The high-flying visitors put up 83 points, thanks in large part to a 26-32 showing at the free throw line compared to Illinois' 18-28 effort.
Lamar Stevens got to the stripe ten times and made eight, only outdone by his 8-12 effort from the floor en route to 25 points. Between today and a 29-point effort in the blowout of Nebraska on Tuesday night, Stevens should be in line for at least a share of Big Ten Player of the Week honors on Monday morning.
The teams traded buckets back and forth in front of a fired up Illinois crowd, on hand for both the game and a ceremony to honor the 30th anniversary of the Flyin' lllini Final Four team. Jamari Wheeler got things going for PSU with a pair of aggressive drives and a nice find to Stevens for his only three-pointer of the game. It was a Stevens vs. Georgi Bezhanishvili battle for the first ten minutes, as the promising Illini freshman found success operating down low against Mike Watkins and John Harrar. Interestingly, Pat Chambers opted to stay with a tall lineup instead of the small ball setup with Stevens playing the five that paid off so well against Michigan and in spurts against Nebraska.
The gameplan worked wonders, as Penn State made their move over the final ten minutes of the half. A 15-5 stretch that lasted six minutes and was capped by a Myreon Jones three gave Penn State their largest lead of the half (13). The run set up the tone of the majority of the game, with the Illini chasing from behind for the rest of the afternoon.
Penn State was comfortable for much of the second half, piling up fouls but otherwise keeping the hosts from seeing the ball go through the net. Watkins in particular had a great game on the defensive end, blocking five shots and grabbing 12 rebounds. Bezhanishvili was held to just seven points in 14 second half minutes that were ridden with foul trouble.
Illinois had one run left in them though, sparked by a heated technical foul from head coach Brad Underwood and a strange officiating moment on a flagrant foul perpetrated by John Harrar's flailing elbows. The officials momentarily gave Harrar an and-1 in addition to calling him for the flagrant - even though the ball did not go through the basket. The call was eventually corrected.
The flagrant fiasco sparked the Illini, who went on a 10-0 run capped by an Ayo Dosunmu steal and slam, cutting the lead to five with less than eight minutes to play. Wheeler answered to stop the bleeding, dribbling out the shot clock and getting to the rim by himself and restore Penn State's seven-point lead.
Illinois would get back within four on the back of a Trent Frazier corner three with 2:21 left to play, but Penn State's inexplicably reliable free throw shooting came up big, as they knocked down 13 freebies to never let the Illini sniff a single digit deficit the rest of the way.
Penn State's resurgence is nothing if not bittersweet. Three weeks ago it looked as if this was headed for a repeat of Ed DeChellis' 2-16 NIT title defense season. Now, the Nittany Lions sit 46th in the KenPom rankings - higher than a few bubble teams and higher than any team with a losing record has ever finished in the seventeen year-old rankings. Yet only a miracle run in the Big Ten tournament will see Penn State accomplish their NCAA Tournament goals, and there are rightful questions over Chambers' job security. In any case, the Lions will return to action on Wednesday night looking to take another ranked opponent down as they host No. 24 Maryland. The Terps will need a win to stay in a double-bye position as the Nittany Lions look to continue to climb out of the bottom four and earn a single-bye in the Big Ten Tournament.