Penn State 71, Illinois 67
The Illini decided to play ball in the second half on the road at Penn State on Saturday, but one half doesn't win basketball games and neither does Illinois (13-9, 3-6) on the road -- falling 71-67 and dropping to 0-5 in road games this season.
John Groce's team outscored the Nittany Lions 42-26 in the second half. The Illini made 15 shots to Penn State's five in the final 15 minutes. But Illinois spotted Penn State a 20-point lead in the first half -- a hole too big for the Illini ladder.
The Nittany Lions, who entered the game with the worst shooting percentage in the Big Ten, shot 60 percent from the field in the first half and scored 45 points. Illinois shot 29 percent.
Freshman center Mike Watkins slammed home a dunk that gave Penn State a 52-31 lead with 15:01 left in second half. But Illinois responded with a 20-5 run that was capped off by a lay-in by Te'Jon Lucas to make it 57-51 with 6:07 to go.
The Illini pushed a little bit further. Malcolm Hill dished off an assist to Kipper Nichols for a dunk and the foul. Illinois was down 62-59 after the free throw with just more than three minutes left.
But ultimately, the Illini could not do enough in the final minutes to make the comeback effort carry substance on the plane ride back to Champaign.
Hill led all scorers with 19 points to go along with seven assists and six rebounds. Jalen Coleman-Lands gave Illinois all 13 of his points in the second half. Maverick Morgan was also in double figures with 10 points.
On the other side, Shep Garner led the way for Penn State with 18 points and four threes. Payton Banks (17), Tony Carr (13) and Lamar Stevens (10) all had double-digit points for the Nittany Lions.
Illinois has lost six of their last eight trips to University Park. The Illini are 11-30 under Groce on the road in the Big Ten during his tenure, and they have lost nine in a row in that category.
What it means
Illinois had a chance to win back-to-back Big Ten games for the first time in two seasons. They had a chance to win a road game and take a winning streak back home for what would be a big week for this team's March future. But instead, Illinois missed yet another opportunity. They had another abysmal first half in an opposing team's arena. And they showed that they continue to lack the consistency necessary to be an NCAA tournament team.
What went right
Illinois showed up in the second half. Their offense was productive with 42 points against a top-35 defense in the country in terms of efficiency. Coleman-Lands awoke from a first-half slumber and hit shots. Hill had seven points and six assists in his 18 second-half minutes. Nichols had eight points and five rebounds in 14 minutes in the second half. And the Illini didn't give up many easy buckets at the other end.
What went wrong
Illini "defense" in the first half. Penn State came into this game having the worst field goal percentage offensive in the Big Ten. But they had no problem whatsoever looking good against Illinois, as they scored 45 points in the first half and shot 60 percent from the field. They scored on nine of their first 13 possessions. The Illini could not stop simple drives to the hoop. They have shooters too much space. Same old problems that have been seen far too often.
Illinois' offense in the first half. They scored only 25 points. Hill and Morgan were the only players who gave the Illini more than one bucket. Coleman-Lands didn't score. Lucas didn't score. And Illinois also had six turnovers, which gave Penn State 13 points off of those giveaways. The Illini offense was patient early on and they focused on feeding the post. But after that, they were far too stagnant and disorganized.
The scouting report on Banks should have said not to give him three-point looks. Illinois did. He went 4-of-5 from deep, and Penn State shot 50 percent as a team from beyond the arc.
Late-game execution. This has been an issue before, and it was again late as Illinois had a chance to steal this game. The Illini didn't get a shot off from the time Coleman-Lands hit a three with 1:58 left until Leron Black dunked the ball with nine seconds to go. Down by three, Hill turned it over with 1:17 left. And down by five on their last life, Illinois called a timeout with 33 seconds left. But Lucas drove the ball out of control and turned it over on an offensive foul.
Jaylon Tate played 15 minutes and didn't score. He was called for an intentional foul late. 15 minutes are too many minutes. Tracy Abrams also played 15 minutes. He went 1-of-5 from the field with a bad turnover. Those would be too many minutes if the Illini could afford to sit him.
Illinois gets to go home and square off with Wisconsin (18-3, 7-1), who is tied with Maryland for the top spot in the Big Ten. Playing the Badgers has been nightmarish for the Illini program in recent memory. Wisconsin has won 10 straight against Illinois, and Groce is 0-7 against the Badgers. Since 2007, the Illini are 4-17 against Wisconsin. Greg Gard's team survived a scare by Rutgers at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, but they pulled out the win in OT. Ethan Happ, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are a three-headed monster that no team wants to face.