Pressure mounts for Illini

By Lisa Koulias

As the No. 1 Illini hit the home stretch of the Big Ten season, pressure is building as each win brings the Illini closer to its goal – a Big Ten championship.

And since the final five games are against unranked opponents, and teams the Illini have already faced this season, it shouldn’t be much of a challenge to finish undefeated and at the top of the Big Ten.

Except for the fact that the Illini have had the most trouble getting up for these games.

So when the Illini (25-0, 11-0) hit the court tonight at 7 p.m. in University Park to go up against Penn State (7-16, 1-9), the Illini players might not be feeling the pressure, but head coach Bruce Weber is.

“I don’t see many signs of it from the kids,” Weber said. “As you get down the stretch as a coach, we want to win the Big Ten, so each game you get a little more uptight and a little more nervous as a coach.

“But as far as the players go, I just don’t see it. Maybe they are hiding it good; maybe we’re not listening or paying attention, but they seem loose. They seem to be dealing with it pretty well.”

Even more this year, the Illini have to keep in mind last year’s situation. The Illini killed Penn State at home, 80-34, but struggled to pull out a win on the road against the Nittany Lions as Dee Brown had the game of his life to put the Illini up 66-58.

“You have Penn State, a team that is near the bottom of the league,” Weber said. “But the one thing that will help us is learning from last year’s situation. So we reminded them of that.”

Weber feels that if the Illini can get past these two road games (Illinois is at Iowa on Saturday), then the team could be well on its way to securing the Big Ten title.

Series standing

Going into tonight’s match up, the Illini own a 17-6 lead in the all-time series over Penn State, including a 7-3 advantage in games played at University Park. The Illini have won five in a row and nine of the last 10 meetings.

The last time Penn State won over the Illini was on Jan. 31, 2001. They won in overtime, 98-95.

Last time out

The Illini meet Penn State tonight for the second time this season. The two teams played at the beginning of conference play, on Jan. 12 at Assembly Hall.

Led by Luther Head, who scored 19 points, the Illini cruised to their 17th victory of the season with a 90-64 win over the Nittany Lions.

Dee Brown had five treys for 15 points and Deron Williams had 12 assists.

There for the taking

“Let’s just keep this special, magical season rolling. All of it is sitting there for them and it’s up to us. We are our biggest enemy right now, being mentally ready to play and staying motivated.”

– Bruce Weber on staying