The performance by both teams, not to mention the enthusiasm of the White House crowd, made this encounter a tad more entertaining than the previous matchup between the Nittany Lions and Illini. In Champaign Feb. 18, PSU edged Illinois 38-33 as both teams were roundly mocked for their offensive offenses.
This time around, Illinois scored more points in the first half (leading 34-32 at the break) than it did in the earlier game.
I thought the game was over at halftime, Lion coach Ed DeChellis cracked.
On a serious note, he added, I knew it was going to be a completely different game. I thought Illinois shot it well and played well. We got lucky, we made one more play than them.
ARE THEY IN?
The chatter among national analysts following Penn State's thrilling win Thursday seemed to suggest the Nittany Lions all but wrapped up their first NCAA tournament bid since 2001. Typically when asked about such matters, DeChellis will shy away from making bold statements.
Thursday was different. Asked if he felt his team had earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament, he responded with a quick, Sure.
I think there were two great teams out there tonight, he added. I thought it was two NCAA basketball teams on national television. You can't draw it up any better. Two heavyweights just slugging it out and making plays. We made the last play to win the game and sometimes that's what it comes down to. We're 10-7 in the league. We've won 21 games. I don't know what else people want. We're going to try to give them one more (at Iowa Saturday) and then get to the (Big Ten) tournament and have some fun there. But this was a very important game for us.
STAN THE MAN
Talor Battle may have made the game-winning shot Thursday. But backcourt mate Stanley Pringle kept the Lions in the game. He was 8 of 11 from the floor, 4 of 4 from the arc and gathered five rebounds for good measure.
It just happened to be his 22nd birthday.
Pringle said he knew it was his day when he banked in a long 3-pointer with 7:23 remaining.
I hit one of the backboard, and I was like, wow, how did that go in? Pringle said.
Later, he drilled a bomb with defensive ace Chester Frazier in his face to cut the Illini lead to 63-60 at the 1:47 mark. That one was straight in.
I thought it was long, but it went in all net, Pringle said.
The Penn State basketball program got an assist from the football team right before the game. All-Big Ten quarterback Daryll Clark, outfitted in a white Penn State basketball T-shirt, grabbed a microphone and whipped the crowd into a frenzy.
He started by recalling the PSU football team's White House victory over Illinois last September and said the hoop team would do the same. At one point, he yelled, Man, I'm so hyped right now, I want to put on a jersey and dunk on someone.
He wrapped up by saying, Are you ready to rock and roll? The crowd erupted, and was in the game from start to finish.
Clark stood near the student section for the entire game and urged the crowd on throughout. The gesture was not lost on the basketball players.
We want to thank Daryll, Battle said. He did a great job of firing people up. That was amazing. As one of the best quarterbacks in the country, taking time out of his day to come be a hype man, we appreciate him doing that. That was great of him.
And that's not the extent of the help the gridders supplied. On Wednesday, football coach Joe Paterno gave the hoop team a motivational speed before practice.
STAND AND DELIVER
Two years ago, the Penn State student section was all but dead. In one of its all-time low points, a small group Illinois students shouted it down during the Lions' late-season home loss to the Illini.
Thing sure have changed since then. For the past year and a half, the PSU students -- now tabbed the "Nittany Nation" -- have become a serious factor during Big Ten home games. And Thursday, they did what many considered to be impossible.
With 3:41 remaining and the Lions trailing 63-57, the student section began chanting, Stand Up, Stand Up! It took a few moments, but the season-ticket holders across the way finally caught on. Known for sitting on their hands even in tight games, they slowly began to stand, until nearly the entire section was on its feet by the end of the timeout.
The student section roared. The season-ticket holders never sat back down. And the Lions rallied for the win, as the Illini seemed to be more than a bit rattled.
The crowd was great, man, Battle said. We thank them. Can you all but that in all your articles? We couldn't get over the hump all game. Credit Illinois, they made some big shots. But our fans just kept us in there all the way.
PSU senior forward and captain Jamelle Cornley left the game with just over five minutes remaining with a left shoulder injury. But he returned two minutes later. Though he was clearly having trouble using his left arm, he guarded 7-foot-1 center Mike Tisdale down the stretch and prevented him from attempting a shot. Cornley is 6-5.
This was Penn State's 15th home win of the season, setting a team record. The Lions' 21 wins on the season are their most since finishing 21-12 in 2001-02. State has won more than 21 games in a season only once (going 25-9 in 1989-90).
With a win at Iowa Saturday, Penn State can finish no worse than third in the Big Ten.
After struggling from the free-throw line all year, Penn State made 12 of 15 (80 percent) in this game.