Illini Try Again To Conquer Nittany Lions

The Fighting Illini basketball team returns home to host the Penn State Nittany Lions Tuesday night. PSU has won four of the last five meetings between the schools, and star junior guard Talor Battle is an Illini killer with his last-second exploits. So despite losing their first three Big 10 games, the Nittany Lions are confident of victory.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber is pleased with his team's perfect 3-0 start to the conference season, and he wants to see the streak maintained.

"Every week is a big week once you get into conference play. It's a nice opportunity for us with a home game Tuesday night and hopefully a chance to continue having success."

But to win, the Illini must contain Talor Battle, the conference's second leading scorer with an 18.1 average. The talented junior point guard, listed at 6'-0", 170 but likely a couple inches shorter, is at his best in pressure situations. He has had his way late in close games with the Illini, penetrating for circus layups or dishing to open teammates.

New Illini starter Bill Cole has great respect for Battle.

"Talor Battle is a great player. We're gonna have to work as a team to shut him down."

The question is, can he be shut down?

"I don't know," Cole admits. "A team that runs that many plays for one player as Penn State does, it's gonna be tough to stop him. But I think if we play as a team, use our team defense and help each other, I think we'll be all right."

Mike Davis says the Illini will use a combination of players to slow Battle.

"It could be Jeff (Jordan), Brandon (Paul), D.J. (Richardson), all those guys guarding him, slowing him down with different guys on him. He plays 38 minutes a game. Maybe we can get him in foul trouble. With him on the bench, they're a whole different team."

Battle will get his points. Weber realizes the team can't focus solely on the PSU star. At least, he no longer has graduated teammates Stanley Pringle and Jamelle Cornley to share the load.

"You've got to limit him and not let him go for 30. That's a big thing. But it's a fine line. You can't let guys that are averaging 6 get 12. Pringle was pretty good, Cornley was pretty good. They were seasoned veterans, and they eased the pressure on Battle. You couldn't focus on him.

"I think that's what's happening right now. Teams are focusing on Battle, making it tough on him, making him earn it and trying to make other guys make plays.

"My fear is that they have some length, they do have some physicality inside. We've got to deal with that. And we might have a committee to stay with Battle the whole time. Even last year, Chester (Frazier) did a good job on him, but at the end of the game he wants the ball. He makes plays. If it comes down to a close game, do we have somebody who can stay with him and limit him?"

Battle leads the Nittany Lions in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. He is the only one with a double digit scoring average, but six other Penn State players average between 6.1 and 8.2 ppg.

Junior David (DJ) Jackson (6'-7", 210) is second in scoring, followed closely by sophomore Chris Babb (6'-5", 215), junior Jeff Brooks (6'-8", 200), freshman Tim Frazier (6'-1", 160), junior Andrew Jones (6'-10", 245) and freshman Bill Edwards (6'-6", 235). Cammeron Woodyard, a 6'-5", 205 sophomore and big men Andrew Ott (6'-10", 245), a junior, and freshman Sasa Borovnjak (6'-9", 235) also see playing time.

Participants are still being asked about the embarrassing 38-33 Penn State victory in the Assembly Hall last year. Illini guard Demetri McCamey knows Battle well and says they both have great incentive to put points on the board to erase all further memories of last year's debacle.

"You know he's gonna come in fed up about the way everyone is talking about how few points we scored here last year. He's gonna be putting it up, and they're gonna be shooting to show they're better than that. And we're gonna be fired up to show we can score more than 38 points. Everybody's gonna be playing hard and wanting to score."

Illinois has had an annoying habit of getting far behind early in games. Cole says they don't want it to be that way, but their come-from-behind victories over Clemson and Indiana give them confidence under those conditions.

"It's like the never-give-up strategy with this team I guess. We've spotted so many teams to this point in the season. We hope it doesn't happen, but if it does at least we know we have the talent to get back into it."

Weber has come to realize his team plays only as well as needed to win. Fortuitously, he practiced late game situations prior to the Indiana game, and it paid off.

"I've gotten into the mindset every game is gonna be close. We've just got to figure out a way to win games and prepare for that. Hopefully we can make progress that we can continue to win those.

"We actually started a drill in practice last week where we gave each team a lead and called it 'Perfect Finish.' We said you can't let the other team score the last 1:30. And you can't turn it over, and you can't miss the front end of the bonus.

We tried to put them through the experience of it. You get three chances, and if you can't do it you run. So one team's working on offensive execution while a second team is working on stops.

"We found a way to win Saturday night against Indiana. I told the guys I didn't care if we won by one point. You just have to find a way to win.

"We executed and got the D.J. jumper and the Mike Tisdale dunk, but we also got the stops that we didn't do against Gonzaga and Georgia. We didn't always score last year, but we were able to stop people. And then when you make your free throws, you have a chance to win."

Weber may continue toying with the starting lineup.

"I just would like consistency. My and the staff's biggest dilemma is we just don't ever know on a day-to-day basis what we're gonna get. You understand it with freshmen, but we've had the inconsistency with the upperclassmen. That's why our record is where it's at.

"We need consistency out of those guys. Then it will make it easier on the rest of the guys. Those guys can play their roles."

McCamey played perhaps his best half of the year to conclude the Indiana game. So perhaps his coming off the bench helped him focus on the task at hand. He took the demotion philosophically.

"If I don't start, I'll just try to set the goal of being Sixth Man of the Year. It's just playing basketball. As long as we win, that's all that matters to me."

Despite their recent struggles, Weber knows the Nittany Lions will be a formidable opponent. He needs his players to play with intensity. They seem to play better with a home crowd supporting them, and they will need that formula Tuesday.

"They've had the weekend off, and they're struggling. So they're gonna come in with some intensity. The last couple games, it has come down to the last couple plays of the game. You have to expect it will be that way again."

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