Penn State came into Illinois tonight seeking to get the bitter taste of last Sunday’s embarrassing performance against Nebraska out of their collective mouth. As 12.5-point underdogs, it sure seemed like a tall task to keep a Kofi Cockburn-led Illini team in check, but this is a PSU team that has found ways to defeat the likes of Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan State, amongst others in the Big Ten, and tonight’s performance at times resembled those big upsets. Unfortunately, the final result saw PSU come up short of what could’ve been a major upset on the road.
Illinois raced out to an early lead, which PSU ultimately was able to chip away at, thanks to their ability to slow down the tempo of the game to their liking. Seth Lundy, Jalen Pickett, and Greg Lee were instrumental in allowing the Lions to shoot 52 percent for the first half, while defensively, Illinois was only shooting a paltry 31 percent, and Cockburn was unable to get into a rhythm and set up shop inside the paint, as perhaps he was expected to. Despite significantly out-shooting the Illini though, PSU only led by one at the half, thanks to Illinois having a plus-eight rebounding advantage (including eight offensive boards) and 12 seconds chance points (to PSU’s zero).
The second half saw Illinois mostly leading, although PSU made enough shots to not let the deficit get worse than five points. With six minutes remaining, Dallion Johnson nailed a go-ahead three to put PSU up 52-50 and it seemed like PSU had a real chance to steal one in Champaign. Unfortunately, the Lions’ old nasty habit of going ice-cold for long stretches reared its ugly head, as they went on a nearly six-minute scoring drought to end the game. The Illini gradually plowed their way to a two-possession lead in the final minute, as Johnson nailed another trey with 6.9 seconds left to make it a three-point deficit for PSU, but the Illini subsequently iced the game from the line with a pair of free throws.
The offensive rebounding and free throw rate percentages tell the story of this one. Despite being out-shot overall by PSU, Illinois went to the charity stripe 17 times and made 15 of their shots, compared to PSU’s paltry 1 of 3, all three of which came from Pickett getting fouled while shooting a three. Literally, PSU had one trip to the line the whole game. Yikes.
Player of the Game
Jalen Pickett led the team in scoring and assists with 18 points and seven dimes dropped, to go along with five rebounds. He pretty much did it all tonight, and his efforts helped give PSU a chance until the very end. For that, he’s your POTG.
- Holding Cockburn in (Relative) Check - It sure seemed like this game could’ve featured a huge night from Kofi Cockburn. Although he still finished with a respectable 11 points and six rebounds, Kofi was held in check in the first half with only four points. PSU was able to pack it in defensively and not allow him to get into a dominant rhythm.
- You Get A Brick, And You Get A Brick! - During the six-minute drought towards the end of the game, it became painful to watch shot after shot rim out. Most painful of all, was Myles Dread with a wide-open look from three-point range in the left corner that would’ve tied the game had it gone in. I don’t know about you, but I was expecting Dread’s shot to swish through, considering he has nailed some very timely shots this season to propel PSU to wins.
- Your Updated Big Ten Tournament Scenario - With tonight’s loss, Sunday’s game at Rutgers is now a must-win if PSU wants to avoid finishing in 11th place and having to rematch with Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament. Even if PSU does somehow, someway, walk out of Rutgers victorious, they will need some outside help as Maryland travels to Michigan State that same day. If Maryland wins, then they solidify 10th place and the opening round bye, regardless of the PSU-Rutgers result.
Penn State (12-15, 7-12) concludes its regular season with a road trip to Jersey Mike’s Arena (aka “The RAC”) to face Rutgers in a rematch from January’s sound beating at the BJC. Tipoff will be this Sunday at Noon ET on B1G Network.