Penn State 83, Illinois 70
CHAMPAIGN - If coffee is for closers, John Groce must have the wrong brand of beans.
Closing halves has been an issue all season for Illinois, and it once again cost them a must-win game.
Penn State ended the first half on a 14-2 run to take a 41-29 halftime lead. It was the eighth time this season -- and fifth time in eight games -- the Illini faced a double-digit halftime deficit. Illinois (14-12, 4-9 Big Ten) now has lost all eight games.
Penn State (14-12, 6-7 Big Ten), which entered the game 13th among 14 Big Ten teams in field-goal percentage, shot a season-high 56.9 percent from the field.
Payton Banks -- who scored 13 of PSU's last 17 first-half points including three 3-pointers -- led the Nittany Lions with 24 points (8-for-12 FG). Lamar Stevens added 19 and Tony Carr finished with 19.
The Nittany Lions' scoring surge continued into the second half, sinking eight of its first 11 shots, to claim a 62-43 lead with 9:29 remaining.
Illinois then made a 14-0 run -- which included seven free throws -- to re-charge the desperate home crowd following a Tracy Abrams three, which cut the deficit to 62-57. But PSU responded with consecutive and-ones to extend the lead to 68-57.
Illinois, which has lost seven of its last nine, hasn't won back-to-back Big Ten regular season games since the close of the 2014-15 season, when it beat Northwestern (Feb. 25, 2015) and Nebraska (March 4, 2015) -- a streak of 32 conference regular-season conference games.
Illinois freshman point guard Te'Jon Lucas tied a season-high 11 points (7-for-12 FT) and added seven assists, while Malcolm Hill added 14 points (though the senior had no rebounds, no assists and five turnovers). Jalen Coleman-Lands (3-for-6 FG, 4-for-4 FT).
Groce now has a 33-52 Big Ten record during his five-year tenure.
What it means
For the first time maybe ever, Penn State basketball appears to have a brighter future than Illinois. Pat Chambers needed time (six years) to get some of philadelphia's best talent, but the Nittany Lions are bigger, better and more athletic than the Illini. Meanwhile, fifth-year Illini coach John Groce is trying to fight off finishing an under-.500 overall record for the second straight season, something that hasn't been done since 1975. The Northwestern win was a nice diversion for a few days, but Illinois has to win out its final five Big Ten games and win a few during the conference tournament just to sniff the NCAA Tournament bubble. Dominated by PSU at home. On the verge of missing a fourth straight NCAA Tournament. Both are indictments of Groce.
What went right
Te'Jon Lucas continues to look like a legit Big Ten point guard. The freshman makes plays, mostly as a distributor, but also is finishing better around the rim and getting to the free-throw line.
Kipper Nichols (six points, one rebound), who earned his first career start, continues to surprise with his outside shooting. He sank both of his threes, and now is 9-for-16 from three (56.3 percent) this season. Michael Finke (8 points, 2-for-4 three) also continues to show a hot hand. He's 18-for-34 (53.0 percent) from three during Big Ten play.
Groce went to an eight-man rotation again. Jaylon Tate sat for his second straight game. Mike Thorne Jr. did not play for the fifth time in 10 games. D.J. Williams sat for the ninth time in 10 games. Aaron Jordan did not play for the third time in six games. The "strength in numbers" philosophy didn't work for Illinois this season. Groce finally figured that out. It just took him too long to come to that conclusion.
The game ended at 3 p.m., meaning fans didn't devote a weekend night to Illini basketball.
What went wrong
Defense, defense, defense, defense. It's been the issue all season. The Illini seemed to take some strides the last six games, but allowed a bad PSU offense to get what it wanted. PSU's previous season high was 50.0 percent. It shot 56.9 percent against the Illini. It's previous high point total in a regulation Big Ten game was 77 points. It scored 83 against the Illini. At one point, PSU made 20 of 29 shots. That's unacceptable. The Illini picked up some defensive intensity to make the run in the second half, but where was that intensity earlier? The defense has been atrocious for most of the season. Saturday was a reminder that the previous handful of games remain the outlier.
Hill continues to try to carry Illinois, but that's too big of a job for one man. He tried to do a bit too much one-on-one against athletic, strong defenders -- resulting in five turnovers. The best player often gets the second-most brunt of the criticism, behind the coach, but like Demetri McCamey, Brandon Paul and Rayvonte Rice before him, Malcolm Hill is not Illinois basketball's problem.
Senior center Maverick Morgan played small The usually consistent big man struggled against PSU's length, toughness and athleticism. He shot 2-for-5 from the field, only pulled down three rebounds and turned it over three times.
The Illini need more from sophomores Leron Black (six points, two rebounds).
Illinois has a week off before traveling to Iowa on Saturday for a 1 p.m. tipoff (BTN). The Illini beat the Hawkeyes 76-65 in Champaign on Jan. 25, holding Big Ten leading scorer Peter Jok to 10 points on nine shot attempts. But Jok was dealing with a back injury and missed the next two games. Jok has 40 points (on 27 shots) during the last two games. John Groce is 3-4 against Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery and is 1-2 at Iowa City.