Illini squeak by Nittany Lions; survival is all that counts in tournament

By Lucas Deal

CHICAGO – Survive and advance.

In tournament play, it’s a common battle cry. Whether you blow out a team by 45 points or squeak one out by a bucket, it doesn’t matter. As long as you survive, you get to advance.

On Thursday night the sixth-seeded Illinois basketball team knocked off 11th-seeded Penn State 66-60 in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. The win moved the Illini (22-10) into the quarterfinals of the tournament and sent the Nittany Lions (11-19) home to Happy Valley to hibernate for another long offseason.

While the game’s final outcome appeared to be a formality all week, Penn State challenged the Illini with everything they had. Led by junior shooting guard Mike Walker’s career-high 22 points and Big Ten Tournament record seven three-pointers, the Nittany Lions hung right with the Illini from the opening tip to the final horn.

Penn State led 11-2 before ESPN2 ever cut to break and 13-2 before the Illini finally hit a jump shot. Even when the Illini did right the ship, grabbing a 16-point lead early in the second half, the Nittany Lions still refused to give up.

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It was one of those “What have we got to lose?” games from the Nittany Lions, and the Illini nearly let them get away with it.

Had it not been for a career night by Chester Frazier (21 points, 5-of-9 from beyond the arc) and a solid night from Warren Carter (19 points), Illinois would not have survived this game.

When you break it all down, it was the classic trap game. Illinois entered the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday knowing they needed at least one – or possibly two – wins to secure an NCAA Tournament berth, while Penn State just wanted to hang around Chicago long enough to get some deep-dish pizza. The Illini knew they were supposed to win the game and the Nittany Lions knew they were supposed to roll over.

Just think about it. If you were in Illinois’ shoes, wouldn’t you have overlooked Penn State?

Their season has been over since January. They got beat by 31 at Indiana five days ago and by 18 at home against Illinois 12 days ago. Even if they did win three games this weekend, they still wouldn’t make the NCAA Tournament.

If you’re an Illini player entering Thursday’s game, you’ve got to be thinking Penn State shouldn’t have even made the trip, right?

Well, I know the Illini would never say that, but as a member of the media I’ll be the first to admit I was thinking it.

I picked Illinois to roll over the Nittany Lions 64-51 in my Big Ten Tournament bracket. I thought Penn State would put up a decent fight for a while, but eventually they’d lay down and let it go.

I figured by the last minute of the game every player on the Illini bench would be fantasizing about a third game against Indiana.

Boy was I wrong.

Penn State came to play. They got nasty and they got mean.

They hit circus shots and crashed the glass. They made Bruce Weber sweat a little and made a small but strong pro-Illini crowd at the United Center nervous.

They brought back flashbacks of their stunning 66-65 win over the Illini in Champaign last February and gave all of Illini Nation a mild heart attack.

But, despite all that, the Illini survived.

Now they get to advance.

Lucas Deal is a senior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected].