Whistle Happy

A total of 52 fouls were called in Thursday's Illinois-Penn State matchup, creating a slow-paced grind-it-out kind of environment in the Illini victory.

CHAMPAIGN – With a blanket of snow on the roads outside the Assembly Hall impeding fans' travel Thursday night, a trio of Big Ten officials played a larger role in the obstruction of fans returning home at a decent hour.

A total of 52 fouls were whistled by the time the buzzer sounded on the Fighting Illini's 64-59 victory, a slow-paced, sloppy, grind-it-out kind of battle that ended well over two-and-a-half hours after it began.

Many of the 7,667 who braved the weather to attend (a little more than half of the paid attendance) showered the officials with boos to voice displeasure.

Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul could only shake his head during the final round of free throws, a pair knocked down by D.J. Richardson to seal the game.

"We knew this was going to be a fight. They're record doesn't really show how hard they play," Paul said.

The lead changed hands only two times in the game with the Illini (20-8, 7-7) on top the entire second half, but Penn State (8-18, 0-14) twice battled back from a nine-point deficit to keep the game within reach down the stretch. The first half offered a brutal display by both teams, but the action was clean for the most part.

That was not the case in the latter stages of the game. With Penn State within five points of the Illini with a little more than six minutes to play, the teams combined to shoot 14 free throws as only 1:20 ran off the game clock.

"For a second there it seemed like every possession down there was a foul," Illini forward Sam McLaurin said. "That definitely disrupted our rhythm a little bit."

When it was all said and done, the Illini shot 36 free throws (making 23), marking their second-most attempts in a game this season.

Two Nittany Lions, Ross Travis and Kevin Montminy, fouled out and four others finished with four fouls.

Illinois was whistled for 21 fouls, but Penn State managed only 9 of 16 from the free-throw line.

Penn State Coach Patrick Chambers exchanged words with the officials on a handful of occasions, nearly drawing a technical in the second half for excessive clapping following a call that went in favor of his team. His body language was as if he was saying, ‘finally, a call for us' and at one point he told an official that, "he'd had enough," of the calls.

Illini Coach John Groce, though his usual animated self at times during the game, offered no criticism of the refs in his postgame news conference.

"The game is officiated the way it's officiated. We had three great officials for the game. It just happened to be one of those games, you know, called that way."

Whether any party had a legit qualm about the officiating won't change the outcome of the game. In what isn't thought of as a traditional rivalry or marquee matchup, Thursday's game was the ninth time in the last eleven meetings between Illinois and Penn State to be decided by five points or less.

Illinois entered having won its previous four games. Penn State, on the other hand, hadn't tasted victory since Dec. 29. Despite the contrast in success to date, the game was contested throughout, though not always easy to watch.

"Every year, I told the new guys coming in, it's going to be a rough one," Paul said of the Penn State matchup. "Just keep grinding it out, keep playing having the mindset that we have to finish it out. We had guys that made plays."

Richardson carried the team through a sloppy start, hitting four of the Illini's eight baskets and scoring 11 of his team-high 18 points in the first half to build a 29-20 lead.

Penn State refused to go away, twice erasing nine-point deficits in the second half to set up the foul-happy finish.

"I give them a lot of credit. I'm not going to sit here and say we were awful," Groce said. "I think we made some mistakes we've got to clean up, but they had a lot to do with it. They fought; they battled all the way to the end."

While it wasn't as comfortable as most would have preferred, the Illini gained win No. 20 on the season, marking the fourth 20-win season in the last five years. Also at 7-7 in the Big Ten, Illinois is currently in sole possession of sixth place in the conference standings.

"Credit our guys for grinding it out. They really grinded," Groce said.

Illinois' run of five consecutive victories is the longest current winning streak in the Big Ten and marks the first time since January of 2010 the team has won five in a row in conference play.

Two weeks ago the Illini were 2-7 in Big Ten play and looked like a long-shot to make the NCAA Tournament.

Asked for his general thoughts on what led to the change in results, Groce couldn't put his finger on any all-encompassing reasons for the turnaround.

"It's been kind of a blur to be honest with you, I'm so, good or bad, one-track minded," he said. "What's in front of us? What can we control now?"

That would be a trip to Ann Arbor Sunday to play No. 7 Michigan. The Wolverines beat Illinois 74-60 on Jan. 27. Since then though, Michigan is just 3-3 and has fallen from the top-ranked team in the country to No. 7.

"We just felt like we didn't play that well at that time," McLaurin said of the first meeting. "This time around we're looking to play a lot better and have a different outcome."

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