Lions Go Down Swinging

Penn State's difficult season reached the end of the line in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament Thursday, as the 11th-seeded Nittany Lions fell to sixth-seeded Illinois at the United Center in Chicago, 66-60.

Ed DeChellis' troops went down swinging, though. After trailing by 16 points in the second half, PSU rallied behind Mike Walker's career-high 22 points — including a tournament-record seven 3-pointers — to cut the lead to two. But the Illini made free throws when it mattered and held on for the victory.

“We've been a resilient team all year,” DeChellis said. “… For the most part, our kids have fought back and been consistent that way. They've shown some resiliency.”

They've had to.

Touted as an NCAA Tournament hopeful prior to the season, Penn State finished 11-19 overall and 2-14 in the Big Ten, and closed the year by losing 15 of 16 games.

The Illini improved to 22-10, and with a solid 9-7 record in the Big Ten now figure to be locks to make NCAAs. They can eliminate any doubt with a win over No. 3 seed Indiana in tournament quarterfinal action Friday night.

Early on Thursday, though, it looked like Illinois might have to sweat it out come Selection Sunday.

The Nittany Lions raced out to a 13-2 lead while making six of their first eight shots. Better still, every PSU starter scored in the streak, a testament to the team's good ball movement.

But a flurry of turnovers (six of them) led to a seven-minute stretch in which the Lions did not hit a field goal. The Illini took advantage by going on their own run, grabbing a 16-14 lead that nullified PSU's hot start.

“They just became a lot more aggressive,” Lion forward Geary Claxton said. “Especially on defense, really pressing and getting into us.”

Penn State had 11 turnovers in the first half but managed to stay within striking distance at the break (27-22) in part because Illinois struggled from the arc, making only 4 of 17 shots.

Unlike the previous meeting between the two teams, where the Illini hammered PSU in the paint in an easy 68-50 victory at the Jordan Center, the Lions packed their zone into the lane in this one and forced Bruce Weber's team to do its damage from the perimeter. The game plan worked just fine through 20 minutes.

“They did a great job of manhandling us [inside] at our place, so we thought we'd try to take that away as best we could,” DeChellis said.

Illinois opened the second half with a 14-3 spurt to take a 41-25 lead with just under 12 minutes to go.

Penn State rallied behind Walker and Danny Morrissey to cut it to 44-38 with less than seven showing.

“I got it going a little bit,” Walker said. “You get down 10 or 15, and a little more pressure goes on the shooters. The shooters have to step up and make shots, and luckily today they went in.”

The Lions had a chance to draw even closer when Claxton went to the line to shoot one and one. But he missed the front end.

Illinois responded with two free throws by Warren Carter. Then, following another PSU turnover (Milos Bogetic traveled), Illini guard Chester Frazier made a 3-pointer and the lead was back into double figures, 49-38.

It was one of five triples on the night for Frazier, who had a total of seven 3-pointers and shot 23 percent from the arc in Big Ten play this year.

“That's kind of how it's gone for us,” DeChellis said. “You play pretty well and someone comes out of nowhere and makes big shots against you. It's frustrating, but that's the way it's gone all year.”

The Lions scrapped back again, thanks to Walker's work from the arc, cutting it to 58-55 on a conventional 3-point play by Brandon Hassell and a steal and score by David Jackson with 2:17 left. Later, Jamelle Cornley made a baby hook and margin was 59-57.

But Sean Pruitt came back with a bucket in the lane for the Illini, and, following a Cornley miss, Brian Randle made a pair of free throws with 1:17 left to boost the lead to 63-57 and Illinois was able to hang on from there.

“We didn't stop playing, we didn't quit,” Claxton said. “We kept playing to the end but we just came up short.”

In other games in Chicago Thursday, No. 7 seed Michigan State held on to beat No. 10 seed Northwestern 62-57 and No. 8 seed Michigan beat No. 9 seed Minnesota 49-40.

The Spartans face No. 2 seed Wisconsin Friday, while the Wolverines tangle with No. 1 seed Ohio State. No. 4 seed Iowa faces No. 5 seed Purdue Friday, too.


• Illinois has now won 17 straight games at the United Center. Think the rest of the conference might be glad that the Big Ten Tournament is heading to Indianapolis for a five-year run beginning in 2008?

• Penn State had 18 turnovers on the day, but none of them by Walker.

• Claxton had 10 points and nine rebounds, but made only 3 of 13 shots and was 3 of 6 from the line. He missed the front end of two one and ones and also had six turnovers.

• Frazier led Illinois with a career-high 21 points.

See Penn State's Season Box Scores Here.


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