On paper, this game should have been an easy one. Penn State had won four of their last five games, their only loss coming on the road against the likely number one team in the nation when the new rankings come out. Meanwhile, Illinois has two Big Ten wins total. The game, as we all know, played out a little differently.
Illinois has managed to make a game of almost every contest they’ve played in, only losing by more than 10 points three times all season. As such, the game played out exactly like all the other games the Fighting Illini have played. The made life miserable for the Nittany Lions in the first half, grabbing each and every rebound on both ends of the floor. They started really hot from the floor, so much so that they hovered around a six point lead for a good portion of that half. To make matters worse, both Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins earned two fouls, forcing them to sit on the bench for the bulk of the half. Yet somehow, some way, Penn State found itself up one at halftime, when all logic and reason would have dictated at least a 10 point deficit.
The second half was no less erratic. The Nittany Lions started with a turnover right off the bat, and several opportunities to extend the lead were wasted away by more turnovers and more missed shots. Luckily, Illinois did not seem interested in taking over the game either, which allowed the Lions to survive their patented scoring drought for the first four minutes of the half.
As the Illini struggled to score, Penn State slowly, but steadily, built its lead.* The Lions were up by as many as 16 before Illinois made their mini-comeback, but the lead Penn State built was enough of a cushion to allow them to survive yet another team’s late rally to preserve the win. The Illini cut the game to as close as 10, but that’s about as close as the game would get before Penn State opened back up and stayed there.
With the easy stretch out of the way, the Nittany Lions are now staring at the barrel of their postseason future. Find a way to win two more games, and and there’s a conversation to be had.
Four Factors Analysis
Penn State was getting murdered on the glass early, but their pristine defensive effort and relentlessness in the second half allowed them to make it a little closer while still maintaining a much higher shooting percentage. What’s more amazing is that most of this damage was done without Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins.
Player of the Game
Garner, who became the 10th player in Penn State’s all-time scoring list with today’s performance, was all over the place in this game. His defense has been tremendous as of late, and was sorely needed today with having both Watkins and Reaves on the bench. His connections to Reaves late in the game may appear on a Sports Center top 10 or two.
Honorable mentions go to Tony Carr, who again took only the shots he needed to and dished the ball out all other times, and Jamari Wheeler, who probably has a target on his back in the entire state of Illinois after that defensive performance.
Sharing is caring - Ugly game and all, but the Nittany Lions shared the ball impeccably, especially in the second half. The ball movement was what allowed them to build and maintain their double-digit lead.
Go fight win - After so many collapses, it’s good to see the Nittany Lions consistently fight off teams to preserve wins. This is what a good team should do.
Play time is over - At 8 and 6, this is the highest win percentage Penn State has had this late in the season since 2008-09, when the NIT-champion Penn State team finished 10-8 on the year.
Congrats, Garner - As mentioned above, Shep Garner has reached the top 10 in scoring at Penn State. Enjoy it!
The bench did what? - It scored. That’s what it did.
The moment of truth starts on Thursday, when Penn State welcomes Ohio State to the Bryce Jordan Center. The Buckeyes have not forgotten who gave them their only Big Ten loss. Lucky for the Nittany Lions, they haven’t forgotten either. Game’s at 8:00 PM on BTN.
*While the lead grew methodically, it did feel like Penn State was hanging on for dear life and then scored 200 points in the span of 30 seconds to put the game away.