You can only take your heart getting ripped out of your chest so many times. I don't know what that limit is, or what the result of reaching that limit will be, but it feels like we're approaching it with this Penn State team. Something has to give, whether it's a few of D.J. Newbill's muscle fibers not firing and thus allowing his last-ditch layup attempt to drop instead of agonizingly caroming off the far rim, or whether it's an officials' lungs not expelling air into a whistle as Devin Foster tries to seal off a defender while handing the ball off to Newbill. The thinnest margins make all the difference in this conference, as we saw today, but those margins are often the largest to span if the goal is to become something in the B1G basketball landscape.
Of course, those margins aren't what ultimately cost Penn State today's game in Champaign. For as solid a ballhandling team as the Nittany Lions have been this season, it failed them today to the tune of 19 turnovers. You probably can't win a road game like that. The Lions have been fouling at an incredible rate this season, and they committed 20 fouls today. You probably can't win a road game like that. And yet, Penn State was in this game until the death. Newbill got his usual 20 points, this time on 13 shots, and Julian Moore - the redshirt freshman who had scored 21 points all season coming in - nearly doubled his career-high with 10 points on a bevvy of plays you normally don't see from a Penn State freshman center. He carried the Lions at times in the first half with Newbill sitting on the pine due to foul trouble. Shep Garner's three-point percentage continues to plummet (1-6 from beyond the arc), but his 14 point-performance was another bright spot for another freshman.
Malcolm Hill was the difference for the Illini. With Kendrick Nunn in an uncharacteristic slump (10 points, 2-14 FG), his fellow sophomore poured in a complete offensive performance: 27 points on 10-15 shooting and 4-5 from deep. His game-winner over Dickerson may have been the most impressive shot he made all day. Take away Hill's efforts, and Penn State defended admirably. John Groce's team shot 12-38 from inside the arc, an astounding 31%. But they got enough to get over the hump and win at home.
Four Factors Analysis
Man, this is frustrating. Penn State out-performed Illinois in three of the "Four Factors" categories. This illustrates just how much the turnovers killed the Lions today. Illinois had nine more field goal attempts than Penn State, largely due to those negative possessions. PSU's average turnover percentage on the year, by the way? 18.8%.
Player of the Game - D.J. Newbill
Newbill got his #Quiet20 once again, and he did so in far fewer minutes than he normally gets. He picked up his second foul around the midway point in the first half, and Chambers opted to sit him for nearly the remainder of the half. That's a valid criticism of Chambers if you're looking for one - Illinois struggled to score against the Moore-Dickerson frontcourt pairing, and with the nation's third-leading scorer on the bench Penn State was equally ineffective, even with Illinois' all-time leading shot-blocker Nnanna Egwu on the bench with his own foul issues. Hindsight is 20/20, but Newbill didn't commit another foul for the rest of the game. D.J.'s game-tying layup hit back iron, which was downright cruel considering the excellent work he did to weave through the entire Illini cefense, save for the last defender (who very well could've been called for a blocking foul standing inside the semi-circle).
- Evolution - Take a bow, Julian Moore. In his 20+ minutes, the redshirt freshman displayed some excellent footwork and timing in the post. Two tip-slams and two legitimate post moves? Big men aren't supposed to do that at Penn State. Hopefully we'll see Moore minutes for the young fella, because he certainly earned them today.
- Perfection Lost - Devin Foster missed a couple of shots inside the arc today, which is unacceptable considering the start to his Penn State career. He's now a putrid 9 of 11 on the year. We hold our athletes to a higher standard here, Devin. Shape up or ship out.
- Paging Jeff Brooks - For how great Brooks' senior year was for the Nittany Lions back in 2011, Ross Travis is having nearly the exact opposite kind of season. Two points, two turnovers and four fouls in single-digit minutes is not what you expect from a senior starter in any game, much less one that could've gotten Penn State firmly back in the NIT discussion (/chugs beer). Travis is capable of so much more, and he's got to start showing it if the Nittany Lions are going to salvage anything from this season.
Penn State travels to College Park on Wednesday night, where they'll face a Maryland team going through some tough times right now. The Terps will have had a week to prepare, however, and they'll be geared up to face such a huge rival. These schools are rivals, right?