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Penn State 79, Illinois 76: Nittany Lions (Likely) Punch Their NCAA Tournament Ticket, Remain Perfect Against Illinois

Penn State is (likely) going dancing! The Nittany Lions finish the season 3-0 against Illinois and are headed to the Big Ten Quarterfinals following a 79-76 victory over the Illini!

Illinois v Penn State Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

For much of the first half the Nittany Lions controlled the pace of the game and were able to keep the Fighting Illini at an arm’s length and then some. However, a problem that has reared its ugly head too often this season arose once again as Penn State’s offense went ice cold to finish the half. As a result, despite controlling much of the half, Penn State’s halftime lead was just 31-30.

After jumping out to a 27-17 lead, Penn State scored just 4 points in the final 8:28 of the first half. It took a great second effort by Seth Lundy after he had a shot blocked for the Nittany Lions to even take a lead into the locker room.

In the first half Penn State shot 48.3% from the field while Illinois shot just 34.3%. Penn State was 2/8 from three-point land while Illinois was a woeful 3/14. The Nittany Lions also out rebounded the Illini and had more assists. Had it not been for going ice cold before the half Penn State easily could have had a healthy halftime lead.

As the second half began the back-and-forth dogfight ensued.

Things would also get testy at times. Dain Dainja was called for a technical foul when he head butt Myles Dread while celebrating a basket. Dread then hit the free throws as the pro-Illini crowd, for some reason, booed an obvious technical call.

Shortly after this, Dread hit a three-point shot for the game’s 11th lead change. On the next possession down the court he made a great defensive play to force a held ball with the possession arrow favoring the Nittany Lions.

On a night Penn State needed a victory to guarantee themselves a spot in the NCAA Tournament, Dread, who has played more basketball games than anyone else in program history, looked like a determined in the second half.

His stat was nothing special but Dread played strong defense, especially against Dainja. He also hit that important three-pointer, while pulling in 4 rebounds and picking up a block along the way.

It was also yet another big game for Cam Wynter. Continuing his late season surge, Wynter was 7/9 from the field and 4/7 from the free throw line on his way to posting 18 points to go with 5 rebounds and an assist.

Late in the game the Nittany Lions finally got hot from behind the arch. Led by Andrew Funk, they went on a 17-4 run and appeared to be on their way to putting the game away. However, missed free throws allowed the Illini to hang around. The problem for Illinois is that they also struggled from the free throw line, impacting their ability to capitalize on Penn State’s struggles.

It was not easy, nothing ever is for Penn State, but the Nittany Lions emerged as 79-76 victors over the Illini. With the win, Penn State is now 20-12 on the season and 11-10 in the Big Ten. This includes being 3-0 against Illinois.

Suck it Brad Underwood and your very punchable face!

Player of the Game

Andrew Funk - 20 points, a rebound, a steal

Jalen Pickett never found his true groove with scoring on Thursday night. However, three-point expert Andrew Funk stepped up in a big way. The Big Ten’s leader in three-pointers was a very nice 6/9 from behind the arch on his way to a 20 point performance. He seemed to sink one big basket after another in the second half for the Nittany Lions.

Random Observations

Jalen Pickett still impact the game - Penn State superstar Jalen Pickett scored just 12 points while going 4/10 from the field on Thursday. However, he was still a top notch facilitator for the Nittany Lion offense. He made more than one top notch pass as part of his 8 assist game, Pickett also pulled in 8 rebounds for the Nittany Lions.

Big Ten Officials suck - Listen, I am a firm believer that you should never put the officials in a position to be able to decide a game. Obviously, there are some exceptions (see — 2014 White Out against Ohio State). However, the officiating was horrendous on Thursday night. Robbie Hummel even chimed in with his complaints about it. Thankfully, it did not hurt the Nittany Lions.

Seth Lundy helped set the tone/pace - Early in the game Seth Lundy was the best player on the court. He helped set the tone early and his strong play continued throughout the night. More than once he made a strong cut to the basket to get an important two points for the Nittany Lions. All told, Lundy finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds.

Next Up

Penn State now advances to the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. The Nittany Lions will play second seeded Northwestern at 6:30 PM ET on Friday. Penn State defeated Northwestern in overtime in their lone regular season matchup. Time to improve NCAA Tournament seeding.