Maybe it was the after-effects of 71% shooting the game before, giving the Illini a false sense of security. Maybe it was the snowy conditions outside the Bryce-Jordan Center or the absence of a crowd inside. Whatever it was, Illinois began its game with Penn State like it didn't care who won.
Lethargic play, unforced errors and ill-advised shots apart from the offense combined to put the Illini in an 11-2 deficit to begin the game. Illini coach Bruce Weber understated the problem.
"I don't think we had the emotion that we needed to have at the beginning of the game."
Weber had reminded the Illini how tough Penn State has been against the UI in recent years. He tried to spark his seniors with the realization Nittany Lion seniors had their number more often than not. The PSU upset of Michigan State aided Weber's effort. But none of that mattered until the Illini started battling back after trailing 25-13 midway through the first half.
"You've got to come to play every day," Weber reminded. "It's my job to get them there, but at the same time, sometimes it's got to come from within. Every game's got to be a championship game, that's how they've got to look at it."
Perhaps they did, but their play didn't reflect it until they finally found a spark to close out the half with a 12-0 run to pull even at 25-25 at intermission. Even then, they could have had a nice lead had they not forced shots.
"We fought back into it, made some plays, but it seemed like offensively we always tried to make the quick hit, the big play. When we moved the ball, they would break down. That probably cost us later in the game."
The game enjoined, it was Penn State who took the initiative to start the second half. After Mike Tisdale hit two free throws to give the Illini a 30-27 lead, the Nittany Lions went on an 8-point run to regain the advantage. It was nip and tuck from then on.
Perhaps most discussion about this game will center on the game-ending play by Talor Battle. After all, the man who makes a living winning games in the last seconds drove the lane, shot high off the backboard where teammate Andrew Jones was waiting for a putback dunk to produce the final score.
And perhaps Battle's overall play will be singled out. He scored 26 points, hitting 8 for 15 shots including 4 of 9 from the arc. He was also perfect from the free throw line in six tries, handed out three assists and collected three steals. His two long second-half bombs, one from inside the center circle with the shot clock running out, were back-breakers.
But the real culprit was the Illini effort, especially early. They want to be Big 10 champions but cannot produce maximum effort on a consistent basis. They cannot always expect to come from behind and win games on the road. On this night, it was Penn State that did what was needed to win according to Weber.
"They've got older guys, they guard, they went zone a little bit. They kept it close. I told the guys we've got to find a way to win. That was the theme all week. You've got to guard, you've got to rebound, you've got to get the fifty-fifty ball. We didn't do that at first. They beat us on the Matto (play-hard chart) at halftime. They got the loose balls and found a way to win."
Tisdale led the Illini with 16 points and a career high 14 rebounds, but he had too little support from his teammates. Mike Davis had an uninspired game with 8 points and 4 rebounds. Bill Cole added eight points, and Brandon Paul scored seven.
Demetri McCamey was the only other Illini in double figures with 10 points, but his five turnovers neutralized his five assists. As Weber reminds, the Illini need McCamey to play well.
"Demetri has carried us. He didn't play quite as good today. If he doesn't play quite as well, we probably aren't as good a team."
The Illini shot 41.3% for the game after hitting only 4 of its first 16 shots. Penn State was worse at 34.6%, but a 33-28 rebound advantage, including six more offensive boards, and five fewer turnovers aided their cause. Weber reminded how so many of the Illinois-Penn State battles have been close games.
"It's crazy how these games with them have gone. Ninety-five percent of the time it comes down to the last play."
When the Illini are winning, every game looks winnable. But after this disheartening loss, the road game Saturday at Wisconsin followed by home games with Michigan State and Ohio State appear to put the Illini behind the eight ball early in the Big 10 conference season.
"It's a tough week, a tough couple weeks," Weber states. "The schedule is just part of it. You've got to come to play."