If you'd have told anyone before the season started that Penn State would go on to win more Big Ten games than last season and secure its second straight winning regular season, you'd have had a hard time getting anyone to believe you.* Yet here we stand, 7-11 in the Big Ten, and with a shot at securing a 9-seed in the Big Ten tournament.
Penn State started fast, opening up a 14-8 lead off two Shep Garner threes and a slew of hustle plays by Josh Reaves. Illinois fought back to take the lead with under 9 minutes left in the first half, and the back and forth affair continued from there.
Credit the Lions for limiting Kendrick Nunn for most of the game/first half. They forced him to go right and made him work for every shot he took. Malcolm Hill picked up the slack for Illinois in Nunn's figurative absence, scoring 15 points in the first half to again close the Penn State lead to just one point at halftime.
The second half saw Illinois start with three turnovers on their first three possessions (four of their first five), and Penn State used the continued unforced errors to build a double-digit lead with 12 minutes left in the game. Illinois fought for the rest of the game, due in no small part by Penn State's own miscues. Two overtimes later, Penn State took a 5-point lead they wouldn't give back.
You could tell this was the last game of the season. Both teams did a great job of scouting the opposition. Nunn was held well below his scoring output for the game, and Illinois did a good job of limiting Brandon Taylor for a good portion of the game. Taylor came alive midway thorugh the second half, however, and that was the difference in the game.
Four Factors Analysis
If the final score isn't enough, these numbers show how close this game was for most of the 50 minutes played. Free throw rate is actually skewed in favor of Penn State due to all the fouls Illinois had to give at the end of the game. They had the advantage for most of the game. Illinois is not very good at rebounding the ball but still managed to keep pace with Penn State for most of the game.
Players of the Game:
Shep Garner - 22 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists
Brandon Taylor - 21 points, 11 rebounds
As they've done many times this season, Taylor and Garner combined to score 43 of Penn State's 86 points, taking turns going on fire for stretches of the game. Honorable mention goes to Josh Reaves, who bested his career high of 12 points today. Reaves had 13 points.
- Reaves is coming into his own – Reaves is starting to find himself on the floor after missing multiple games with mono. His offensive performances in the past two games give just a little glimpse on the type of player he can be moving forward.
- So is Isaiah Washington - Washington has been playing better as of late, having already carved a role for himself on defense. If his offense continues to grow, he might be able to earn some minutes moving forward.
- Did you know? – This is the first time Penn State has had three straight 16+ win seasons as a member of the Big Ten.
- Welcome to the D-team - There were several miscues in the broadcast today, pretty much representing the type of game played. Audio cut in and out of the game, and at one point there was music playing during live play. Not BTN's best outing.
- Fouls, fouls, fouls - Penn State got their fair share of fouls called on them today. The game was as close as it was for most of the game due to the discrepancy in fouls committed.
- Take a bow - This may not be the best senior class Penn State has ever had. They may not even be remembered a few years from now if all goes well. But this class has given their hearts and souls to the program, and planted the seeds for a bright future at Penn State. Thank you seniors.
Penn State awaits their destiny now. If Nebraska wins today, they play on Thursday against Michigan in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament. That game kicks off at Noon on BTN. If Northwestern wins, they play against Ohio State, at 6:30 on ESPN2. GO NEBRASKA!
*I would have been the one telling you.