Illinois raced out to a 40-33 halftime lead, survived a 13-2 Penn State run to begin the second half and battled back to win the game. Newly named captains Demetri McCamey and Bill Cole served leadership roles, keeping the team together during the tough times and encouraging teammates throughout.
Illini coach Bruce Weber was happy and relieved with the outcome. The first half was especially exciting for him.
"Great start. I thought the first half was as good as we have been. With one exception, we took good squared up jumpers. We got help, we dished it down. Demetri had 8 assists."
Penn State took an early 7-5 lead before the Illini rallied. Bill Cole hit the first of his four threes, Mike Tisdale put back a rebound, D.J. Richardson popped his second three, Tyler Griffey laid one in and Cole hit another three to give the Illini a 20-9 lead.
Brandon Paul's three gave the Illini their largest lead at 24-13 and later knocked down two more to help the Illini maintain their advantage. Davis' baseline jumper provided halftime momentum. Illinois shot a blistering 57% for the half.
Weber reminded his group to stay strong, that the Nittany Lions would make a run on them and they needed to keep a good body language and fight through the adversity. They did that better than most any other time this season. PSU could gain no more than a four point lead.
Cole hit another three to push Illinois back into the lead at 53-51, and Davis hit another baseline J. Dominique Keller added a turnaround to make it 59-53, and Richardson sank two free throws to extend the lead to 8 points.
From that point on, it was mostly a free throw contest for the Illini. The Nittany Lions fouled repeatedly hoping to stop the clock and make a comeback. But Richardson popped 6 more free throws under pressure. McCamey contributed three freebies, and Tisdale and Davis provided two each to hold PSU at bay.
The Illini shot 52.1% for the game while holding the Nittany Lions to 40.4%. As proof of their teamwork, the Illini provided each other 18 assists on 25 made baskets, reminiscent of their play last season. They had only 9 turnovers while also winning the battle of the boards 35-27.
McCamey missed six of his seven shots and three of six free throws, but he had one of his better games. Other than a couple forced shots, he preferred to set up his teammates and keep the offense moving against PSU's switching defenses. Weber hopes McCamey is developing his leadership qualities and can play like that in future games.
Richardson and Paul both made bonehead freshman mistakes late in the game by fouling Talor Battle when the Nittany Lions were desperate to score with no time off the clock. Paul fouled out on his. But both made clutch shots and are beginning to play with more maturity. Richardson ended with a game high 20 points, and Paul added 10 points and three rebounds. Richardson also played solid defense on Battle.
Weber felt Cole had a tremendous statistical line. The newly-named co-captain hit four of six shots, all threes, while securing 7 rebounds, providing three assists and throwing his body around the floor. Tisdale scored 10 points and grabbed 7 boards, Davis came close to a double-double with 11 points and 8 rebounds, and Keller added 6.
Illinois began the game with freshman Griffey in the starting lineup for the first time in his career, replacing the slumping Mike Davis. Griffey's stat line wasn't impressive, scoring two points and grabbing one rebound in 10 minutes, but Weber is convinced Griffey needs to play 10-12 minutes a game. He provided stability and helped run offense.
Battle led the Nittany Lions with 20 points, seven below his average for his previous three games. Chris Babb was a close second, scoring 18 points including 4 threes. David Jackson added 13. A lack of support from the bench contributed to PSU's demise.
Weber bragged about his players afterward. He said they made an important step in their development, but they still have further room for improvement. They must now build on this effort in their remaining games.
Indiana comes to Champaign Saturday, and Weber knows it will be another tough Big 10 battle.
"Indiana plays hard. It won't be easy. They came off a disappointing loss, so you know he (Tom Crean) will have them ready this week."