From The Penthouse To The Doghouse

Whatever heights the Fighting Illini basketball team reached with its upset of Ohio State last week, it crashed back to reality with another close loss to Penn State Thursday night in Happy Valley, 54-52. The Nittany Lions were the only Big 10 team with a losing season record, but they played well against the lethargic and three-happy Illini.

We should have expected another close matchup between Illinois and Penn State. The two point result was the fourth time in their last five meetings the winning team won by two points or less. If the Illini have superior personnel, they never seem to show it against the Nittany Lions.

The Illini can't stand prosperity. Leading the Big 10 with a 4-1 record, the Illini played like a team treading water. Perhaps they were rusty after the 8 day layoff. Certainly, Sam Maniscalco was not himself after missing the last three games to injury. Whatever the cause for the loss, Illini coach Bruce Weber took the blame.

"I didn't coach well, I didn't prepare them well. They just gutted it out and found a way to win. It's very disappointing, especially after you get some nice momentum beating Ohio State.

"It's almost the same score as last year. We knew it wasn't gonna be easy. I was hoping we'd come out and play sharp, but we didn't. Brandon (Paul) made some shots, but overall I'm not sure anyone played well."

The story of the game will be the Tim Frazier tear drop that swished the nets with 8 seconds left to give PSU the final margin of victory. Frazier has replaced four year Illini killer Talor Battle, and he made a similar driving shot to win the game.

Meyers Leonard had fouled out with less than a minute to play, opening up the middle for PSU penetrators. Weber knew what was coming, but Leonard's replacement Nnanna Egwu was in a defensive quandry when Frazier drove to the hoop.

"We told Nnanna not to help because Frazier's so good getting in the paint and dropping it down. He was a little cautious about not coming up on him. You've got to give Frazier credit."

The Illini had one last chance, but they were unable to pull off the play Weber drew up for them.

"You don't know if they're gonna be man or zone. We ran a play we thought would work against both. It was supposed to be Sammy coming off of Brandon, get it back to Brandon and either he shoots it or he rips and goes. But they switched it. Sammy did the right thing; he went to the basket. I don't know if he got fouled or not. There were a lot of people in there.

"You've got to give them credit. They got the block and no call, and they won the game."

Yes, history will record those events for posterity. But the Illini lost the game much earlier. In fact, an inability to recognize and counter Penn State's multiple defenses gave the hosts every opportunity to stay close to the favored visitors.

"Changing defenses really hurt us in the first half. We didn't recognize things. Tracy (Abrams) struggled, Joe (Bertrand) struggled. And we stood around a lot, to be honest. That's my fault. We knew they switched defenses. They even did it within possessions. They would start with zone and go to man.

"You hope when Sammy gets back he'll recognize things a little better. Tracy has been pretty good for us, but he struggled today."

There were some officiating calls that were questionable, for both sides. In the first half, many Illini observers felt Bertrand did nothing wrong while wrestling with Frazier for a rebound. But the officials watched replays and called Bertrand for a contact technical. It gave Penn State momentum and a five point swing.

"Joe said he didn't do anything, but the refs said there was no doubt, he hit him with an elbow. It is the rule, and you've got to deal with it. I thought it was very incidental. They were grabbing and fighting for the ball."

Weber was especially incensed at the no-calls against PSU for its aggressive guarding of Leonard.

"I thought they let a lot go with Meyers, and he gets frustrated. You can't put arms on people...that's the rule. They've got to make calls. And then when I say something, they say, 'Don't yell at us.' It's frustrating, but Meyers has got to play strong and finish around the basket.

Officiating did not decide the outcome. The Illini hit only 7 of 22 three pointers, shooting 34.7% from the field for the game. Penn State scored 17 points off turnovers compared with 10 for the Illini. In addition, PSU outscored the UI 6-2 on fast breaks and 26-20 in the paint. These are not statistics of a conference leading team.

Paul scored 20 points, hitting 5 of 11 shots from the field, 4 of 9 from the arc. He and Bertrand shared the rebounding lead with 6 each, and he dished out 3 assists. But he again was turnover-prone, committing five miscues.

"He makes plays, but he's got to take care of the ball better. Too many casual passes. In a low possession game like that, between him, Sam and Tracy, that's just too many turnovers. Some of it is just basic feeding the post."

Paul was also guilty at times of holding the ball until the end of the shot clock and then throwing up an off balance three rather than penetrating or setting up a teammate for a better look.

"He's got to get better at not holding the ball, waiting until 3-4 seconds left on the clock. If you're gonna go, go to the basket and make a play."

All things considered, Paul followed up his 43 point effort against OSU in good fashion. He needed help from teammates that didn't arrive. Leonard had 15 points but only four rebounds and 3 turnovers. D.J. Richardson was a cold 2-11 from the field. Bertrand was a mere 2 for 6, and Maniscalco missed all five of his shots badly.

Upsets are normal in the Big 10 this year. There are still 12 regular season games to play, and anything can happen. But now the Illini risk a losing streak as the pesky Wisconsin Badgers come to the Assembly Hall Sunday.

"It is what it is. It's disappointing, but we've got to regroup. I gave them a goal of not losing two in a row in the League. Now you've got to go home and obviously play better against Wisconsin. They've won three in a row, so they're on an upswing. We're gonna have to play good basketball."

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