Illinois basketball fails to complete comeback in emotional loss to Penn State


Austin Yattoni

Illinois head coach Brad Underwood talks to the referee during the game against Penn State at State Farm Center on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019.

By Jake Hasan

After losing a four-game streak in Wisconsin earlier this week, Illinois hosted the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday looking to get back on the winning track.

However, the Illini’s struggles grew worse and the team lost in a poor shooting performance to the Nittany Lions 83-76. 

“This is a great example of what happens in Big Ten basketball when you show up flat and not ready to play,” said head coach Brad Underwood after the game. “Penn State deserved to win the game. They played much harder than we did.”

The Illini got a strong performance from guard Andres Feliz, who scored 17 points. But the lack of production from the “big three,” Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Trent Frazier and Ayo Dosunmu (combined 16 of 44 shooting), kept the team from a win in front of the State Farm Center’s largest crowd of the season and the ’89 Flyin’ Illini team who were in-house for a reunion. 

“Andres loves physicality,” Underwood said. “That was a game made for him. He’s a guy that isn’t afraid to challenge; he loves to challenge.”

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It was a back-and-forth affair to start the game, and both teams traded baskets early on.

At first, it seemed that theme would continue in the first half, as neither team would let up and both offenses knocked the other’s shots down with ease. But the defenses suddenly came to life for a short period that saw a two-minute scoring drought for Penn State and an 0-5 shooting stint from the field for Illinois.

It was finally Bezhanishvili who started the scoring again for the Illini when he tied the game at 17 with a layup.

Unfortunately for every Bezhanishvili basket in the first 10 minutes, Penn State’s Lamar Stevens had an answer, as he started the game 4-5 with 11 of Penn State’s first 22 points.

Later in the first half, Illinois went cold as Stevens and Penn State increased their intensity. An 8-0 run combined with the Illini suffering through a 1-10 stretch allowed the Nittany Lions to build a lead, which peaked at 13 with a score of 37-24

After the quick start, the Illini had no answers on offense to get out of their cold streak, and their stars weren’t able to help, as Frazier shot just 2-9 in the first half and Dosunmu recorded zero points.

Penn State took a 39-32 lead into the locker room at halftime.

“They play really really hard,” Underwood said. “They had a lot of dog in them, they’re unrelenting. That’s something that is a challenge for us.”

After the break, things didn’t get much better for the Illini in the second half, as the Nittany Lions opened the new frame with a 7-2 run to push their lead to 46-34.

Illinois showed signs of life with about 15 minutes left in the game when they went on an 8-0 run that made the game 48-41. It was a Dosunmu three-pointer that made the game 50-44 and forced Penn State into a timeout to talk strategy.

The Nittany Lions ironed something out in the timeout though, as they went on a 5-0 run to push their lead back to double digits.

It was shortly after that head coach Brad Underwood drew a technical foul, followed by another foul on Feliz and Penn State was able to push their lead to 15, the largest of the afternoon.

The Illini were able to put together a 10-0 run capped by a Dosunmu dunk to bring them within five with just under eight minutes left.

“We were fighting, but sometimes the other team plays better,” Underwood said. “We got close but you got to get stops, three or four in a row.”

The two teams continued to trade baskets and the Illini couldn’t close the gap anymore. For a moment, it seemed like Trent Frazier’s three-pointer with 2:30 left would jump-start the team but a foul by Aaron Jordan let the Nittany Lions go back up by six at the charity stripe.

Illinois couldn’t bounce back and were forced to foul the rest of the way. 

“We been playing hard,” Feliz said. “Sometimes you play hard but the score doesn’t come out the way you want. But keep working hard as a team. We’re gonna make our run again just got to keep our head up and keep working”

Up next the Illini travel to West Lafayette to take on the No. 15 Purdue Boilermakers and try to get back on track.