Illinois coach Bruce Weber marveled at the recent history of these games.
"Obviously you're happy you win, you found a way to win. We've been on the other end against them. There's been some crazy games the last few years. When I shook Talor Battle's hand at the end, he said, 'Coach, it's still a one-point game between Illinois and Penn State.' It's just amazing how every game has come down to the last play."
The Illini got off to a quick start, but PSU stayed close. Both teams were hot early, and they were not bashful about putting up shots. It seemed both teams wanted to exceed last year's embarrassing score of 38-33 by the end of the half.
However, the Illini failed to score the last 8:37 of the first half, missing their final 12 shots. Penn State took a 28-23 lead into the break, and they expanded it to 48-40 midway through the second stanza. That is when the Illini finally came alive.
With Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale carrying most of the scoring load, they battled back. Bill Cole hit his only bucket of the game, a corner three to make it 50-49 PSU. After Penn State had added three points on a Bill Edwards free throw and an Andrew Ott layin, McCamey threw up a shot clock prayer that swished to make the score 53-52. He then rattled in a corner jumper to give the Illini their winning margin.
But there was still 1:16 left to play. The normally clutch Battle missed two threes. Mike Tisdale was set up to take the inbounds pass with :17 seconds remaining, Weber figuring he was the best free throw shooter. The plan backfired as Tisdale missed the front in of the one-and-one.
Fortunately, Tisdale made up for it by blocking a Battle drive with five seconds left. The ball went out of bounds, giving PSU 3.5 seconds to win the game. Predictably Battle got the inbounds pass, but the Illini defense pushed him beyond the arc, and his desperation three pointer bounced off the rim as the horn sounded.
The key defensive play was Tisdale's block. He described the play.
"Battle is one of the quickest guards we face, one of the most athletic. He can score, and I knew he was gonna get to the basket. The last three years he's going to the basket. I was able to help a little bit, my guy kind of forced me to it, and I got a weakside block. D.J. (Richardson), Jeff (Jordan) did a good job on him and let me get those blocks."
Battle made only 4 of 19 shots on the night, far below his average. It was a team effort defending him, but Weber singled out Richardson for special praise.
"I told the guys last night at the end of the meeting how important preparation is. I said 'You're gonna have to guard Talor Battle, you might want to grab one of the coaches and get a tape of one of the games and watch it.'
"Well, D.J. did. He went home and watched it. He came back to practice and said, 'I noticed this, boom, boom, boom.' He named about five or six things. In his locker before the game he taped up his goals and his keys for guarding Talor Battle.
"The kid's growing up, learning how important preparation is. Hopefully, it will carry over to some other guys. So between D.J. and Jeff, we did a great job on him."
McCamey and Tisdale were the statistical leaders for the Illini. McCamey scored 25 points including 5-6 from the arc, and he added 5 assists. Tisdale scored 16, grabbed a game high 13 boards and added 7 blocks while banging for 37 minutes. Nittany Lion coach Ed DeChellis praised them.
"McCamey made a big shot with 2 on the shot clock. He pump-faked on my freshman and knocked it in. And the other one in the corner was kind of in, out, and around and went in tonight.
"I thought he was good offensively. He's an older kid, he's a strong kid, he's a tough match. He uses his shoulder and gets into you and drives the ball pretty well. I think he's a talented player. He made a couple big shots coming off of some screens in the first half. I think Bruce has got his attention. It worked tonight.
"I thought Tisdale made some tough shots. Those two kids were very good tonight, and everybody else just pitched in."
McCamey joked that his goal of being the Big 10 Sixth Man Of The Year is probably at an end after his performance. Weber thinks benching him had its value.
"I think I got his attention and made him accountable. It gets to a point where he's got to show some determination and accountability. Not only the points, but five assists and only two turnovers. So what is he now, 35 and 7 the last stretch? That's a pretty good ratio.
"He's made strides. I told him as a point guard his job is to win games. Maybe he's taken that on and making sure we're successful."
The Illini are undefeated in Big 10 play, but a weekend visit to Michigan State will be a much bigger challenge for them. At least Weber has hope the winning can continue.
"We're 4-0, we go to Michigan State and see what happens."