Penn State basketball accomplished one of the more difficult feats with their 79-76 victory over Illinois this evening in the second round of the Big Ten tournament. The Nittany Lions managed a 3-game sweep of the Illini for the season.
Penn State basketball starts off hot
Penn State took their first lead at the 15:48 mark of the first half. They pushed that lead to 10 when Cam Wynter tipped in a shot to go to 27-17 at the 8:28 mark.
During one of the “peak-ins” in the Penn State huddle, head coach Micah Shrewsbury was congratulating the team for winning the last two 4-minute segments.
However, in true Penn State fashion, they managed only four points for the remainder of the half and took a 31-30 lead into halftime.
Seniors Seth Lundy and Cam Wynter both had big first halves. Wynter has 10 points on 5-6 shooting from the field and Lundy had 11 points.
Penn State basketball showed grit and moxie
While the second half was a see-saw battle for the first 14 minutes, the Nittany Lions played a consistent, solid game. The Illini’s largest lead was only six points and that came on a bizarre 3-point play for Illinois that led to a flagrant foul on their player.
Illinois’s Dain Dainja had just made a layup and was fouled by PSU’s Myles Dread. Dainja’s celebration led to him accidentally headbutting Dread. After the officials conferred, Dainja was given his foul shot and then Penn State’s Andrew Funk shot the two technicals and Penn State had possession.
It was this rather bizarre play that seemed to take all of the momenta out of Illinois’s attack. They never led by more than two points the rest of the contest.
Penn State basketball highlights
Senior Andrew Funk, as he has done all season, was absolutely lethal from long range. He led all scorers on the evening with 20 points, 6-9 from three-point land, the only shots he took from the field.
Overall, PSU had four different players in double digits and freshman Kanye Clary chipped in eight off the bench.
Tonight’s win showed how much Penn State basketball has improved throughout the season. While Funk was 6-9 from downtown, the rest of the Lions shot a collective 2-12 from long range. Yet, against a team that is 49th in the nation in defensive 2-point field goal percentage at 40.6%, Penn State blistering 21-35 (60%) from inside the arc. Earlier in the season, if their outside shots weren’t falling, they were done.
They also managed to win the battle on the boards, outrebounding the Illini 34-32. Lundy led all players with 10 rebounds and Pickett chipped in eight.
I was particularly impressed with the speed of freshman guard Kayne Clary. Multiple times he simply blew by his defender for a relatively easy lay-up. There were moments when he reminded me of Tim Frazier, who I’ve always considered one of Penn State basketball’s quickest players.
Little rest for the weary
Securely “on the bubble” for the NCAA tournament coming into this game, tonight’s victory gives Penn State basketball some much-needed breathing room. It also gave them a 20-win season for the first time since the COVID year of 2019-2020.
Up next for the Nittany Lions is Northwestern, who is the number two seed in the conference tournament. Tipoff is set for 6:30 p.m. (EST) and will be televised on the Big Ten Network.
In a bit of collegiate ironic history, one of Northwestern’s coaches is the former Penn State great, Talor Battle. His senior season was the last NCAA appearance for the Nittany Lions.
How fitting it will be that this year’s squad beats the Northwestern team he’s an assistant coach on?