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Penn State 83, Illinois 70: Break Out The Brooms

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Penn State jumped out to a big lead, nearly blew it, but found their groove again in time to earn a season sweep of Illinois.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

If you felt like you were experiencing a case of deja-vu watching this game, you are not alone: Once again, Penn State jumped out to a sizeable lead over Illinois. Once again, Illinois staged a furious rally that reminded veteran basketbros why they shouldn’t get comfortable with any lead, no matter how large. Once again though, PSU was able to recover and right the ship in time to squelch the Illini’s comeback attempt. The end result was a much-needed win coming off the heels of an upset win at home over Maryland.

In what ended up being a good back-and-forth shooting effort from both sides, the Nittany Lions showed some aggressiveness on the offensive side of the ball, with Lamar Stevens leading the effort by getting to the hoop early and often. Defensively, they were also active, forcing steals and crashing the boards to make sure Illinois did not have any second chance opportunities. Payton Banks later caught fire, knocking down three of his first five three-point attempts to help push the PSU lead into double figures going into halftime, at 41-29.

Penn State picked up where they left off in the second half, pushing their lead to as high as 19 points before they went on one of their infamous cold streaks, going nearly 10 minutes without a field goal while Illinois thanks to a barrage of steals and some hot shooting, gradually whittled the PSU lead down to five. It was then however, that Banks took matters into his own hands, answering with a much-needed layup and foul. Banks’ and-one opportunity was immediately followed by Lamar Stevens completing an and-one of his own to push PSU’s lead back to double figures. From there on, the Lions were able to hit their free throws down the stretch and hold the Illini at bay, earning themselves a sweep over Illinois ahead of a critical road game at Nebraska on Valentine’s Day.

Four Factors

Team Total Possessions PPP eFG% OReb% TO% FT Rate
Team Total Possessions PPP eFG% OReb% TO% FT Rate
Penn State 71 1.07 50.0% 35.5% 19.7% 47.3%
Nebraska - 0.94 39.5% 34.0% 11.3% 13.2%

Both teams shot fairly well from the floor, and both teams turned it over 14 times. The real difference-makers were rebounding (PSU held a 27-20 advantage overall) and free throwing shooting, as Illinois only converted on 14 of their 22 attempts while PSU hit 18 of their 20 attempts.

Player Of The Game - Payton Banks (24 points, 8-for-12 FG, 3-for-6 3-Point FG, 5-for-5 FT’s)

It was very tempting to put Lamar Stevens in here, with his 18 points on 8-for-15 shooting and five rebounds. However, it was Banks who was responsible for pushing PSU’s lead into double digits in the first place, as he nailed three treys in the first half. In the second half, with a once seemingly secure 19-point lead dwindled down to five points and the Assembly Hall crowd coming alive, Banks came up with arguably the most clutch play of the game, by driving to the hoop and finishing an old-fashioned three point play to push PSU’s lead back to eight. The Illini would never come close again after that.

Random Observations

  • Just like high school - How about Lamar Stevens and Tony Carr’s clutch shooting down the stretch? I don’t know about you, but it felt like watching all the YouTube clips from their Roman Catholic playing days.
  • Free throw shooting is everything - As we just touched upon in the Four Factors section, PSU and Illinois had about the same number of trips to the free throw line, but the Lions by far made the most of their opportunities. When you’re trying to stave off a comeback attempt late in the game, hitting your free throws is one of the best ways to do so. That, and the opponent misfiring on their late free throw attempts also helps.
  • Nice knowing ya, John Groce - The loss for Illinois now drops them to 4-9 in the Big Ten, with only Rutgers at 2-11 in conference play sitting below them. Fifth-year head coach John Groce was on the hot seat coming into this season and one has to imagine that getting swept by PSU may have been the final nail in his Illinois coaching coffin.
  • A critical stretch is coming up - As we mentioned earlier, PSU’s next game is at Nebraska this Tuesday. While Nebraska will be very difficult to beat on the road (despite their 4-8 conference record, this is a team that has shocked Purdue at home, won at Maryland and Indiana, and lost by one point at home to Wisconsin), it is nonetheless one of the more winnable games remaining for a PSU team sitting at 6-7 in conference play. After Nebraska, the Lions’ remaining schedule looks like this: Purdue (home), Minnesota (away), Ohio State (home), and Iowa (away). Should they win at Nebraska, the Lions are setting themselves up to potentially finish .500 (9-9) in conference play if they can squeeze an upset out of Purdue or on the road at Minnesota or Iowa. Raise your hand if you thought we would be discussing such scenarios a week ago after losing to Rutgers (put your hand down, liar).

Up Next

Penn State (14-12, 6-7) heads to Lincoln to face a pesky Nebraska team on Tuesday night. Tip-off is at 9:00 PM ET on BTN.