Penn State has shown this season that they will not be intimidated by highly touted opponents when playing in the Bryce Jordan Center. On Thursday night the hustling of the Lions paid off big time in a 54-52 victory over the Illini of Illinois. It was Penn State’s second win of the Big Ten season.
Penn State scored six straight points to open up the second half to grab a 31-23 lead that it would cling to throughout the rest of the game. Finally, with just under a minute to play in the game, Illinois seemed to grow tired of playing catch-up and star shooting guard Brandon Paul pulled the trigger on a contested three-pointer that rattled its way home to tie the game at 52-52. PSU took the ball back and after a pair of time outs, finally put together the game’s winning play. Tim Frazier used a Jon Graham screen to penetrate into the paint and quickly release a running jumper that went right through the hoop to give Penn State a two-point lead.
With Meyers Leonard having fouled out just a few minutes prior, Illinois was almost certain to try to get the ball to Paul on its last possession, but Penn State did a good job denying him the ball and instead point guard Sam Maniscalco ended up driving down the right side of the lane. He appeared to have a good angle on Matt Glover, but Jermaine Marshall flew over from the weak side and swatted Maniscalco’s layup attempt away to give Penn State the dramatic win.
For the entire game, Penn State alternated between man and zone defense (they played a little more man in the second half), but no matter what they played, they made sure to challenge Illinois shooters. The Illini shot 7 of 22 (32%) from beyond the arc and didn’t fare much better when they took the ball inside. In fact, Illinois only had 10 two-point makes for the whole game and the talented center Leonard had 6 of them. A couple of times Leonard got the ball deep in the post and was able to score easily against easier Sasa Borovnjak or Graham, but for the most part, PSU did a good job and did not allow him to dominate the game.
On offense, Penn State did a great job going right at Leonard’s chest so that the big man did not have the opportunity to block many shots. Head fakes were a big help as well, and certainly helped Borovnjak get around Leonard on one of his two post-up buckets.
Cammeron Woodyard has been up and down this season, but Penn State certainly needed him on Thursday. He’s not great at creating his own shot, but versus Illinois Woodyard was very efficient when set up properly and shot 6 of 10 from the field and 3 of 4 from three-point range. Frazier was only 4 of 11 from the field, but he was 4 for 4 from the free throw line and showed great vision by punching in 9 assists. On one play in the second half, Frazier appeared to pass the ball through two defenders to a wide open Borovnjak who was so surprised to be so wide open that he head faked an invisible defender before converting the easy layup.
Matt Glover was his usual blue collar self against the Illini. He defended Brandon Paul for most of the game and was doing a great job until Paul started hitting some ridiculous three-pointers late in the game even as Glover was right on top of him. On offense, Glover was a modest 3 of 7 for 7 points with 3 offensive rebounds (7 total).
Also with 7 rebounds was Jon Graham, who split time with Borovnjak as Penn State’s primary forward because Billy Oliver was out with the flu. Offense continues to be a problem for Graham, who missed another layup and got caught traveling twice on simple post-up plays. As a rebounder and a defender, however, Graham has value. Even though he only scored one point in this game, Graham’s efforts guarding Leonard and picking up tough rebounds were appreciated.
Jermaine Marshall played major minutes, but his shot wasn’t quite there and he finished with just 7 points on 2 of 8 shooting. Marshall has the potential to be a major scoring threat from the shooting guard position, but he’s still struggling with efficiency. On defense though, he’s a big help closing out on opposing shooters and leaping for rebounds. Marshall’s block on the final play of the game was actually one of three shot denials he had on the night.
The win makes Penn State 2-5 in conference play and 10-10 overall. The loss for Illinois knocks them down from the top of the Big Ten standings into a heap with three other 4-2 teams. This Sunday, Penn State heads to the land of big celebrity faces to take on Indiana for the second time this month. It will be tough sledding because the Hoosiers have lost three in a row and won’t be taking the Lions lightly. Penn State has been dreadful on the road thus far, so handling the Assembly Hall crowd may be an issue.