Clutch free throws sink Illini hoops at Penn State

By Genaro C. Armas

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Freshman Talor Battle played like a seasoned veteran down the stretch.

The pesky point guard hit two free throws with seven seconds remaining and took advantage of David Jackson’s pivotal steal with two-plus minutes left to lift Penn State over Illinois 52-51 on Saturday night.

Demetri McCamey hit a three-pointer with 19 seconds left and the shot clock winding down to give the Illini a 51-50 lead, briefly deflating the Jordan Center crowd. Seconds later, they were rocking again after Battle was fouled by Trent Meacham on a drive.

He coolly stepped to the line to fire his first foul shot, which bounced off the iron a couple of times before sailing through the net. The next shot was perfect to put Penn State (12-12, 4-8 Big Ten) up for good.

No pressure, Battle said.

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“I had 100 percent confidence I was going to make them,” Battle said. “I stepped up there and shot them with confidence and they fell.”

He couldn’t breathe easy, however, until Shaun Pruitt missed a desperate eight-footer at the other end as Illinois (11-15, 3-10) couldn’t overcome a sluggish performance from the field (39 percent).

Penn State shot just as poorly, especially in the second half, when the Nittany Lions made only five field goals to eight for the Illini.

But Battle made key plays down the stretch for the win, a good sign for coach Ed DeChellis as he tries to rebuild Penn State. DeChellis had said Battle’s confidence was still a little shaken from missing two free throws with 24 seconds left in a 76-73 loss to Minnesota on Jan. 12.

On Saturday night, the coach said Battle asked for the ball on the deciding possession. The guard drove into the lane and drew the foul before hitting his foul shots.

“He’s playing with a lot more confidence. He wanted it, he got it,” said DeChellis. “He wanted the same opportunity again to show people what he could do.”

The Illini’s front line dominated inside much of the contest against the smaller Penn State forwards. Illinois held a 33-25 advantage on the boards, including 15-7 on the offensive end.

But the Illini also missed easy layups and putbacks and had trouble against Penn State’s 2-3 zone, bearing little resemblance to the team that shot 59 percent from the field in an 84-60 rout of Minnesota.

“It’s like we talked about all year – consistent inconsistency,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “We missed a few dunks, some layups, some plays that might have made a difference.”

Meacham led Illinois with 11 points while Pruitt had 10.

“I don’t think we attacked it very well,” Weber said about Penn State’s zone. “We don’t have a good feel to look inside.”

Battle had 14 points, six rebounds and four assists – all team highs – and starting backcourt mate Stanley Pringle added 11 points for Penn State, which defeated the Illini at home for the first time since 2001.

Pringle, a junior college transfer, and Battle have added speed and athleticism on both ends of the court in Happy Valley. They have stepped up after leading scorer Geary Claxton was lost for the year to a knee injury last month.

Pringle paced Penn State in the first half, when he scored nine points, while Battle made a difference late.

After he hit two foul shots to break a 46-46 tie with 3:08 left, McCamey lost the ball along the sideline on the ensuing possession. Jackson jumped high over McCamey to tip the ball to an open Battle, whose uncontested layup gave the Nittany Lions a 50-46 lead with 2:37 left.

“McCamey was fumbling. … I just tried to tip it and I saw Talor ahead and he made a good play on the runout,” Jackson said.

They were the last points Penn State would score before Battle’s clutch free throws in the game’s waning seconds.