Illinois still needs some help, but its closing in on a share of a Big Ten title.
The path to some hardware included a win over Penn State on Thursday night, which the Illini narrowly accomplished in a 60-55 victory. If Illinois wins its final game this weekend (vs. Iowa) and Nebraska finds a way to upset Wisconsin, the Illini and Badgers will share a regular season conference championship.
But before that happens, the pesky Nittany Lions were trying to find a way to win in Champaign.
Every time Da’Monte Williams and the Illini seemed to find any kind of rhythm on offense, Penn State responded — until the game’s final five minutes.
Up 52-50 with six minutes left in the game, the Nittany Lions’ offense just stopped. Penn State didn’t score again until inside the final 10 seconds, and Illinois (21-8, 14-5 Big Ten) was able to scrape across just enough, capped by a corner three from Jacob Grandison.
For most of the night, however, Penn State looked like the team playing on the cusp of a conference title. Despite Illinois’ clear advantage on the boards (20-12) and second-chance points (12-0) in the first half, fifth-year senior John Harrar and Co. stuck around.
Harrar, who appeared in his program-record 142nd game on Thursday, didn't even get a shot up until midway through the second half. But big first halves from Jalen Pickett (10 points) and Seth Lundy (8 points) helped PSU keep pace and head to the break with a 1-point lead.
Penn State (12-15, 7-12 Big Ten) plays with one of the slowest paces in the country and only got 23 shots up in the first half. Illinois got up 29, but only three of those were from All-American center Kofi Cockburn, who finished with 11 points and 6 rebounds.
Coming out of the locker room, No. 20 Illinois looked a bit more like a team chasing a ring and a banner. Cockburn sparked a more energetic half on both ends, matching his first-half scoring total by the first media timeout and waking up the State Farm Center crowd when he slammed home a lob from Andre Curbelo.
But in their second-to-last home games, super seniors Williams and Trent Frazier kept finding ways to bail the Illini out with winning plays. Williams (14 points; 4-of-10 from three) tallied more than 10 points for the first time this season, while Frazier had 9 points and 4 assists.
None of those helpers were bigger than when Frazier found Grandison in the corner for a late three-pointer, pushing Illinois ahead 55-52.
Illinois’ sparkling defense in the final five minutes did come at a cost. Fighting for a defensive rebound, Grandison bumped shoulders with a Nittany Lion and called for a trainer on the bench. He did stay in the game for a possession after the hit.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Kinda went off the heater he’s been on, but this is still pretty from Alfonso Plummer.
TWEET OF THE GAME
Big Ten champs play with a little more pizzazz and spirit.
this is the definition of uninspired— bryce mcgowens stan account (@Champaign_Room) March 4, 2022
And here’s an honorable mention!
Congrats, Pat! We’re proud of you.
Illinois wraps up its regular season schedule with Senior Night on Sunday against Iowa.
Tipoff is set for 6:30 p.m. on FS1.