Penn State 86, Illinois 79 2OT
Malcolm Hill looked like one of many former stars who had played in the Bryce Jordan Center.
Talor Battle, Tim Frazier or D.J. Newbill had too many great performances in State College that went for naught. Hill felt the former Penn State stars' pain on Sunday.
The Illini junior built on what should be an All-Big Ten Second Team campaign with a career-high 39 points (12-for-20 FG, 14-for-16 FT) -- tied for seventh most in a game in Illini history -- to go along with 13 rebounds for his seventh double-double of the season.
But as has happened far too often this season, Hill's teammates didn't offer him enough aid as the Illini (13-18, 5-13 Big Ten) took an 86-79 double overtime loss in Happy Valley, the Illini's fifth loss in seven games at Penn State.
The Illini's secondary scorers all struggled Sunday. Kendrick Nunn (nine points, nine rebounds) went 3-for-15 from the floor, Maverick Morgan (eight points, five rebounds) shot 3-for-14 from the floor and Jalen Coleman-Lands (nine points, 4-for-8 FG) struggled to find openings against Penn State's tough and long defense.
Illinois finishes the regular season in 12th place in the Big Ten and will play 13-seeded Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, 3:30 p.m. Wednesday in Indianapolis.
Brandon Taylor led the Nittany Lions (16-15, 7-11 Big Ten) with 21 points and 10 rebounds, while Shep Garner had 21 points, six assists, five rebounds and three steals.
Illinois did receive an unexpected big boost from Khalid Lewis -- who finished the game with a season-high 10 points -- in the closing minutes.
With Illinois trailing 63-57, the fifth-year senior hit an open three with 3:04 left -- just his second of the Big Ten season -- stole a pass, sank two free throws , tole another pass that led to two Hill free throws, and made a runner to give Illinois a 66-65 lead with under a minute remaining.
With the game tied 67-67 with 12 seconds left, Hill failed to get a shot off before the end of regulation, forcing overtime.
Illinois went on a 17-6 run to take a 70-67 lead with 3:34 left in overtime, but Penn State held Illinois scoreless until Hill sank two free throws to tie the game at 72-72 and force a second overtime.
But the Nittany Lions outscored the Illini 14-7 in the final overtime period.
What it means
Illinois finishes with its worst Big Ten record since the 2007-08 team finished the regular season 13-18 overall and 5-13 in the Big Ten. That team was also the last team to finish third from last in the standings (12th this season, ninth in 2007-08). But that 2007-08 team is remembered more for its surprise run to the Big Ten Tournment title game and for setting up program momentum that led to a second-place conference finish in 2008-09. This Illini group has a much tougher path -- five games instead of four and a deeper, stronger Big Ten. Groce will be back for another season, but his team needs to taste some success and learn how to win. Illinois went 1-13 against the top-11 teams in the Big Ten this season. Sunday was another missed opportunity against a beatable team.
What went right
Hill played like an absolute star. His skill is evident but his effort and toughness shined on Sunday. His team's record -- like so many Penn State stars before him -- will likely keep him from an All-Big Ten First Team selection, but he shouldn't be far outside the conversation.
When so many others struggled, Khalid Lewis gave the Illini a huge boost when it needed one in the worst way.
D.J. Williams flashed more potential. He hit a few midrange jumpers and had two first-half assists. Two early fouls limited his playing time. But the freshman showed why he earned such a high recruiting ranking despite lackluster prep production. He has all the tools and could be a high-level player if he learns to use them correctly and efficiently. But he only played four minutes in the second half.
The Illini won the battle on the glass (40-35) and got to the free-throw line (21-24), especially in the first half.
What went wrong
Illinois continues to let bad three-point shooting teams shoot well from beyond the arc. Penn State entered the game shooting 31.2 percent from three but made 10 of 23 (43.5 percent) against Illinois. At this point, it's not a coincidence.
The Illini committed too many careless turnovers (14 for the game), including four in the first four minutes of the second half.
Kendrick Nunn isn't the All-Big Ten player he appeared earlier this season. After scoring in double digits in each of his first 17 games, Nunn has finished in single digits in four of the last eight games. Penn State overplayed Nunn to his left -- his dominant hand -- a smart scouting move because three years into his college career, Nunn still struggles to attack to the right and his decision-making has been subpar (to put it lightly). During Big Ten play, Nunn is shooting 38.1 percent). Nunn's defense is as large of a concern. He has the strength and athleticism to be a lockdown defender but isn't one. He doesn't close quick enough on shooters and loses 50/50 loose balls far too often. Illinois simply needs more from its junior star.
The Michael Finke funk continues. The Illini redshirt freshman, who averaged 10.3 points during nonconference, again was a nonfactor going scoreless for the second time in three games. He played just eight minutes on Sunday and has just five points over the last four games and is shooting (11-for-46, 23.9 percent) over his last 10 games. Finke's freshman funk further limits an already-limited Illinois roster.
Jaylon Tate and Alex Austin both played too many meaningful minutes. Meanwhile, freshman Aaron Jordan did not play. It appears the freshman guard doesn't have the trust of the staff. He's played just 13minutes over the last four games.
Groce left a timeout unused in regulation, and Illinois failed to get a shot off at the end of regulation.
The Illini had just six assists on 27 field goals in 50 minutes.
The Illini are No. 12 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and will play No. 13 seed Minnesota 3:30 p.m. Wednesday. The Illini beat the Gophers twice this season -- a 76-71 overtime win in Minneapolis and a 84-71 win in Champaign. Minnesota limps into the tournament following a loss at Rutgers, snapping the Scarlet Knights' 32-game Big Ten losing streak. The Gophers are missing five of their top six scorers -- Joey King (foot injury), Carlos Morris (dismissed), Nate Mason (suspended), Kevin Dorsey (suspended) and Dupree McBrayer (suspended) -- and should provide the Illini with an easy win. Though, the Gophers did take a 40-28 first-half lead at Illinois without Morris, Moason, Dorsey and McBrayer. Still, Minnesota provides an easier path to Thursday than Rutgers.