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Penn State 93, Illinois 81: Lions Sweep Illini

Jalen Pickett had a career night against Illinois.

Feb 14, 2023; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions guard Jalen Pickett (22) shoots the ball as Illinois Fighting Illini forward Coleman Hawkins (33) defends during the first half at Bryce Jordan Center. Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

A mere two weeks ago, Penn State had just finished handing Michigan its worst against the Nittany Lions lost in program history, a 22-point demolition that eclipsed an 18-loss to the Lions in the 90s. In fact, the game was so lopsided that the Lions found themselves up 30 at some point in the contest. Things seemed on the up and up, and Penn State was ready to take on the rest of the regular season with renewed vigor.

Four games later, the Nittany Lions are well out of any bracketology predictions, having lost four straight, and effectively need any and all wins merely to keep postseason hopes alive, let alone NCAA Tournament hopes. Luckily for Penn State, they still had six games left on the schedule leading up to this game, and only one of them is against a team outside of the top 50 in the NET. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that, if Penn State could string some wins together to close out the season, they’d suddenly be looking at a much different situation come March.

If this game is any indication, the Lions understand the assignment. They played like a team who knows theIr tournament hopes are on life support, and pretty much took care of this one quite early. Jalen Pickett was possessed, scoring 24 of Penn State’s 53 first half points.

It looked like it would be a track meet early, as both the Lions and Illini could not miss from the floor. Penn State, however, kept making their shots, especially from beyond the arc, as Illinois started to cool down some. Meanwhile, Pickett’s aforementioned 24 came from everywhere and against everyone. There wasn’t a person on the Illini team that could guard him in this contest, which would ultimately lead to a career night for the guard.

it wasn’t all roses for the Lions. Early in the second half, it looked like Penn State would have their patented collapse to not only let the opponent back in the game, but to give it away altogether. Illinois drew closer and closer to the Lions, cutting down the deficit to as little as 7 points, until Penn State finally woke up again and took over for good.

Player of the Game

Jalen Pickett - 41 points, 2 rebounds, 8 assists, 1 steal

Who else but the man with a career night? Pickett had a phenomenal outing, scoring almost half of Penn State’s points tonight. He still remained the distributor that he is with 8 assists on the night. Take a bow, Jalen!

Random Observations

It’s not the shooting - In their four losses prior to tonight, they shot:

  • 43.4% from the field and 37.9% from three against Purdue (11 three-point field goals)
  • 40% from the field and 36.8% from three against Nebraska (14 threes)
  • 49.2% from the field and 39.1% from three against Wisconsin (9 threes)
  • 50.9% from the field and 46.2% from three against Maryland (12 threes)

Their problem has been, consistently, their inability to stop the opponent from scoring, and scoring in key situations. They were in every game except maybe Purdue, but untimely lapses doomed them, and in the cases of Purdue and Nebraska, guys who barely score 10 a game going for career nights certainly didn’t make things any easier.

Combine the good shooting with just a modicum of defense, and, well…

2000 - Pickett reached 2000 points tonight, joining an exclusive club in college basketball.

That’s more like it - Fouls were called, but they were called consistently. When the refs were letting things go, they did so for both teams. When they called, they called on both teams.

Looking Ahead

Penn State is back on the road on Saturday, February 18, as they take on Minnesota. Nothing is guaranteed in life, and the Gophers have already beaten Ohio State, but the Lions should still have more than just a chance in this one. For their postseason’s sake, they’d better win it. Game is at 9 PM Eastern on the Big Ten Network.