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Penn State 72, Illinois 56: Lions Clinch Opening Round Bye In Big Ten Tournament

This is not a headline we pictured writing a few short weeks ago.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Reaves was not going to allow his final game at the Bryce Jordan Center to be anything short of a spectacular performance on his part. He certainly made good on that promise as he seemingly did it all: Nailing three-pointers (a career-high six of them), leading all scorers with 26 points (also a career-high), crashing the boards, grabbing and creating steals, and even dishing out a pair of assists. With a little help from his friends, the end result was Penn State waxing Illinois to complete a season sweep and more importantly, earn themselves an opening round-bye in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament.

After a tight first half, in which neither team lead by more than seven points, and was only a one-point game at the half in favor of the Illini, the second half saw PSU kick it up a notch. Defensively, the Nittany Lions garnered numerous turnovers (PSU in total, forced 18 Illinois turnovers) and utilized Reaves’ hot hand as well as contributions from Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins to boost the lead into double digits.

The Lions would not allow the Illini to get any closer than nine points in the second half, as they continued to showcase their swagger and confidence, throwing down a couple of alley-oops in the process, that got the entire BJC crowd up on their feet. Reaves had one last dunk in the game’s final minute before going to the bench with a standing ovation, and fellow graduating senior Davis Zemgulis added the cherry on top of the sundae with his buzzer-beating trey:

With today’s win and Indiana’s shellacking of Rutgers in their season finale, the Nittany Lions have earned the 10th seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which allows them to avoid playing in the opening round on Wednesday. This is important, as they will have one fewer game wearing them down (four games, as opposed to five), should they make a deep run in Chicago next week.

Four Factors








FT Rate

Penn State

PPP: 1.04

eFG%: 50.0%

OReb%: 35.3%

TO%: 21.7%

FT Rate: 38.6%


PPP: 0.81

eFG%: 38.7%

OReb%: 32.4%

TO%: 26.1%

FT Rate: 34.0%

These stats should not be surprising, considering the final result. PSU got hot in the second half while Illinois went cold, at one point having two different droughts of over four minutes and six minutes where they did not make a field goal.

Player of The Game

On a day where Myles Dread and Rasir Bolton were off from 3-point range, it was Mr. Reaves himself who stepped up, playing a big role in PSU pushing their lead into double figures during the second half and keeping the Illini at bay. He also was very active on the boards and was his usual teanciously defensive self, picking up four steals and also deflecting several other passes to allow his teammates to garner steals. His final game in Happy Valley should go down as arguably his most memorable.

Random Observations

  • Honoring the OG NIT Champs - Senior Day at the BJC is typically the day where many former PSU hoops players show up and get honored at mid-court during halftime. Included amongst the group today, were several players and managers from the 2009 NIT champion squad, including Talor Battle and Danny Morrissey.
  • Where The Hell Was This Type of Performance in January? - As much as I hate to continue beating the dead horse, we could very easily be talking about Penn State either clinching a spot, or having a good chance at clinching a spot in the NCAA Tournament right now, had it not been for the horrendous 0-10 start in Big Ten play. That being said, if they can at least make it to the semi-finals of the B1G Tournament, there will be drumbeats for them to be included in the NIT field.
  • Thank You, Seniors - Not just Josh and Davis, but also to the student managers and other student staff members who do so much for the program behind the scenes. Your contributions are much appreciated.

Up Next

As of the time of this recap being written, the Nittany Lions will sit back and wait to see who their first round opponent will be in the B1G Tournament. If Ohio State upsets Wisconsin at home later today, it will be the Buckeyes. Otherwise, PSU will face Minnesota. Either way, that game will tip off at 7:00 PM ET this Thursday on BTN.