So close, yet so far away….and so cliché. But as I sat and watched PSU battle against a solid, if not spectacular Illinois team in a 5 point loss, I don’t think there’s a better way to sum up where this Nittany Lions team stands. For the third straight game, 3 players scored in double figures (Jermaine Marshall-20, Sasa Borovnjak-17, D.J. Newbill-13), something that had not happened in the previous 11, and the offense looked much more efficient than it had. An aggressive defense, especially early, held the Illini to under 40% from the field. But with all those positives, PSU was just 56% from the free throw line, turned the ball over 15 times (7 by Newbill), and send the home team to the charity stripe 36 times (they converted 23).
In what has started to become a theme, Penn State got out to another fast start, perhaps against an Illinois team that was looking forward to a big road test against Michigan on Sunday. Regardless of the reason, PSU scored 9 straight points after the Illini got the games first field goal, to take a 9-2 lead with 14 minutes left in the half. They would score just 11 more the rest of the way as fouls mounted, and turnovers added up. On one hand, they were fortunate to only be down 29-20 at the half, given all of their errors, but an argument could be made they should’ve been much closer, if not for some missed chances at the free throw line, and 9 turnovers.
PSU would again assert themselves early in the second half, scoring 5 straight points to close within 4, and they would keep it close the rest of the way. With less than 5 minutes to play, PSU would have their best chance, but a D.J. Newbill jumper was off that would have cut the lead to 2. On the ensuing Illinois possession, the Lions would play 32 seconds of great defense, before Tracy Abrams would get to the basket for an easy layup to put the home team back up 6. A Nick Colella three would cut the deficit to 3, but Brandon Paul would hit a triple of his own to put his team back up 6. A PSU turnover on the next trip down the floor would essentially end their hopes.
Marshall had a dominant second half, but his teammates could not get him the ball for a long stretch as they tried to mount a comeback. He would finish with 20 points, including 4 of 8 from behind the three point arc. Sasa Borovnjak equaled his career high 17 points with his 3rd straight impressive performance on 7 of 10 shooting. D.J. Newbill added 13, but it was those 7 turnovers, and 2/5 free throw shooting that will stick with him. For the game, the Illini outscored PSU 23-9 from the free throw line.
PSU is off this weekend, before hosting current #7 Michigan next Wednesday in the Jordan Center.
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