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Illinois 60, Penn St. 55: Kendrick Nunn, You Hero

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Freshman Kendrick Nunn had himself a day. The losing streak is over and the future is bright.

Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

A short losing streak brings anger. A longer losing streak breeds apathy, and the Illinois fanbase had reached that point.

"There's a game today?"

"Yeah. Penn State."

"Oh. Alright."

"You going to watch it?"

"I guess."

Dozens of hungover students had that conversation this morning. Adults, too.  Then Kendrick Nunn started the game and slapped the apathy right off those sleepy faces.

Kendrick frickin' Nunn.

This contest felt different from the tip-off. Nunn started the game, along with Malcolm Hill, replacing Bertrand and Ekey. Austin Colbert got time, as did Jaylon Tate, and Maverick Morgan played perhaps his best game of the season. It was the freshmen's game to win or lose, and I didn't hear a single complaint about it.

This season is done, so let's focus on the youngsters. Let's take a peep at the future. Today, we saw that peepshow, and I'd say it's sexy as hell.

***

Illinois started the game slow, falling behind the Nittany Lions, 7-0, early. They fought back, slowly, eventually taking a lead, 19-18, with around 9 minutes left in the first half. From there, Illinois and Penn St. went back and forth. Nittany's punches came from D.J. Newbill, a legitimate stud, while Illinois' punches came from the freshman. The January matchup foreshadowed this, of course.

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The game went to half tied, 31-31, and the veterans were nowhere to be found. Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand had a combined zero points. The freshman, on the other hand, had a combined 23. The leader: Kendrick Nunn.

The story didn't change much in the second half, and Kendrick Nunn kept chugging. He finished the day with 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting, finishing at the rim, knocking down shots, playing strong D and doing all things awesome. He matched D.J. Newbill at every turn.

With 22 seconds remaining,  and the statement, "Kendrick Nunn played great today," already sealed, Nunn stepped up even further. He knocked down a 3-pointer to extend Illinois' lead to 4. That was the ball game, and that was a day for Nunn. What a day it was.

NOTES

- This season hurts and isn't much fun at all, but not all is lost. Illinois' future looks infinitely better than it did even one week ago. Groce made the statement through his starting lineup and through his allotment of minutes that the Illini were going to live and die with the freshman today. The teenagers responded, and we lived. I'd expect to see a lot more of Malcom Hill, Maverick Morgan, Jaylon Tate and even Austin Colbert the rest of this season. I expect Kendrick to start every game from here on out.

- We won't have a losing streak that long under John Groce ever again. If you watched and fought through all eight losses, than you, good sir or madam, are allowed to pour yourself a high ball. You deserve it.

NEXT GAME: Illinois Fighting Illini (14-10, 3-8) vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers (12-10, 4-6) - Wednesday, Feb. 12 - 8:00 p.m. CT