BY JIM COTTER
Sometimes a team does not bring its best game, but things still seem to work out no matter how ugly it may look on the surface.
The Fighting Illini survived a sluggish start, and hung on to win their fifth straight game, defeating the Penn State Nittany Lions 64-59 at the Assembly Hall in Champaign. The Illini fell behind early 11-2, as the Nittany Lions came out playing with nothing to lose.
The Illini made a huge run midway through the first half, and maintained that advantage, taking a 29-20 lead into the halftime locker room.
The second half started much like the first one did, with Penn State cutting into the Illini lead, and pulling to within a single point on a couple of occasions. That margin, however, would be as close as the Nittany Lions would get, as they had quite a difficult time in shaking the Nittany Lions, who are the bottom dwellers of the conference.
“I was really proud of our guys tonight for grinding one out, and several people stepped up and made big plays toward the end of the game,” Illini coach John Groce said.
D. J. Richardson led the Illini in scoring with 18 points, while Brandon Paul added 16.
The Illini were outrebounded by a margin of 34-25, and only could muster six offensive rebounds. Sam McLaurin, who continues to play well on the glass, had half of those offensive boards, and finished with five rebounds to go with six points.
Groce was very accommodating of Penn State and how they played.
“They were physical and played with a lot of passion, and just wouldn’t go away,” Groce said. “I give them a lot of credit, and they played right up until the final horn.”
Fouls were at a premium in the game, as there were 52 called, just nine short of the Assembly Hall record, which has stood since 1977. The Illini made 23-of-36 free throw attempts, and missed several down the stretch to keep the Nittany Lions in the ballgame.
“For a few possessions there, it seemed like there was a foul on ever y play, which really disputed the rhythm of the game,” McLaurin said.
“There were entirely too many fouls called, and this is the third game in a row that the opponent has shot over 30 free throws in a game,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said.
“I think I am a much better free throw shooter than what I showed tonight,” said Brandon Paul.
Paul made only 3 of his 8 attempts.
The Illini did an adequate job of taking care of the basketball, committing 11 turnovers, compared to 16 for Penn State.
With the win, the Fighting Illini improve to 20-8 overall and pull even in the Big Ten standings at 7-7.
The Illini moved into sole possession of sixth place in the league with a couple of tough road games remaining.
Penn State, who falls to 8-18 overall and remains winless in the Big Ten at 0-14, was led in scoring by Jermaine Marshall, who had a game-high 20 points. Sasa Borovnjak added 17 points, while D. J. Newbill chipped in 12 for the Nittany Lions, who shot 44 percent from the field, but only made 9 of 16 free throw attempts.
The Illini shot just under 40 percent for the game and struggled from beyond the arc as well, making 7 of 24 three point attempts.
Up next for the Illini, a tough road contest on Sunday afternoon, when they travel to Ann Arbor, Mich. to battle the Michigan Wolverines at Crisler Arena. The Wolverines (22-4, 9-4) are in sole possession of fourth place in the Big Ten, and are undefeated at home this season.
Game time on Sunday afternoon with Michigan is set to tip off at noon central time, and will be televised on ESPN. The game can also be heard on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-102.1, as well as statewide on the Illini Sports Network.