Illinois deserved a better fate. Playing inspired in the face of immense pressure, the Illini grabbed and maintained a lead throughout most of the game. They expanded a two point halftime advantage to a 10 point cushion at 60-50, but the Nittany Lions outscored the visitors 14-3 the rest of the way. And just like last year, Battle made the play at the end when needed.
"To their credit, they've owned us," Illini coach Bruce Weber surmised afterward. "I don't know why. They seem to make plays when they need to. You've got to give Battle credit. He made the layup."
Still, Illinois carried out the game plan to near perfection. Weber was happy with their play.
"My kids played their butts off. I couldn't be more proud of them. I didn't know after yesterday's practice how they would be. They did everything they needed to do except win the game."
Penn State began its final comeback with three free throws from Danny Morrissey when fouled on a three point attempt. Demetri McCamey made one of two free throws to give the Illini a 61-53 edge, but Stanley Pringle countered with a jumper. Dominique Keller laid in a rebound to keep Illinois ahead by 8, but two Battle free throws and a three by Pringle cut the lead to 63-60.
PSU's D.J. Jackson deposited two free throws to make it a nervous one point game under the one minute mark. Trent Meacham, who struggled mightly the entire game, missed a running floater in the lane. But he almost became the hero by stealing the ball and obtaining a jump ball, the possession going to the Illini.
The inbounds pass went to Mike Davis, who was fouled and given a one and bonus. He missed badly on his first attempt, giving Battle time for his heroics. Weber second-guessed himself on his inbounds play afterward.
"It's my fault for putting it in his hands. It was a critical foul, and Trent or Demetri were the two. We didn't make the free throw. We didn't make the plays when we needed to."
Weber reminded the Illini in a timeout that Battle would take the ball the length of the court, just like last year when he was fouled and won the game with a free throw. But it didn't make a difference.
"We were here last year, and the same thing happened. We told them to stop the ball, and we didn't stop the ball. We had our chances. Trent had a little roller that didn't go in, they had a roller that went it."
Penn State was sky high for the game, hoping a win would guarantee it a rare NCAA bid. The game was a "White Out," and perhaps the largest group of students ever to attend a PSU basketball game attested to its importance. The students flooded the floor afterward. Weber was concerned for his players' welfare, but he was happy for his friend Ed DeChellis.
"It's great for their program. The fans rushed the court and ran over our guys. But they should be happy. They did a great job, Eddie's done a good job. A couple years ago they were pretty down on him. It's good for him."
The statistics supported the Illini, even if the final score didn't. The Illini outshot the hosts 48% to 42%, a sharp improvement for both teams over their first meeting. Illinois also led the rebounding. And they accumulated an impressive total on their Matto Play Hard Chart.
"Our kids came ready to play. We were over 20 on the Matto at halftime. I don't know what it ended up. We just didn't get it done at the end."
Three Illini were in double figures, led by Demetri McCamey with 16 points and 7 assists in one of his best all around games. Chester Frazier closed out his last regular season game with 11 points and 5 rebounds. Mike Tisdale scored 12 points and grabbed 6 rebounds. Mike Davis added 9 points and 6 rebounds.
Even the bench played well. Calvin Brock was one of Illinois' stars with his all-out hustle. He scored nine points and corraled six rebounds. And Dominique Keller put in 6 important points.
"Calvin and Dominique played well," Weber said. "Our bench was much better. That really helped us. I'm just proud of our kids."
It was a heartbreaking loss, but the Illini players have had an outstanding season. With an overall record of 23-8 and a Big 10 audit of 11-7, they can still finish no worse than fourth in the conference and could finish as high as second, depending on the outcomes of Penn State at Iowa and Purdue at Michigan State.
As Weber reminds, the Illini still have reason to hold their heads high and look forward to good things ahead.
"We've had a heck of a year. And now we have to see if we can regroup and go into the Big 10 Tournament and get something done."