Illinois men’s basketball sneaks past Penn State as usually reliable scorers struggle


Sydney Laput

Junior center Kofi Cockburn goes up for an offensive rebound during the first half of Illinois men’s basketball’s game against Penn State at State Farm Center on Thursday.

By Christan Jones, Staff Writer

The Nittany Lions came to Champaign looking to spoil the Illini’s slim chances at a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship, but they came up short. Illinois beat Penn State, 60-55, after battling through a tough shooting night from most of its usual scorers.

Penn State (12-15, 7-12) hasn’t been in the conference championship conversation all season, though No. 20 Illinois (21-8, 14-5) was a favorite in the pre-season. By winning their final two games, the Illini would put themselves in position to tie Wisconsin, if Wisconsin loses its final game of the season.

Penn State senior guard Jalen Pickett scored the first basket of the night, hitting a 20-footer from the right wing over Illinois fifth-year senior guard Trent Frazier. Frazier responded on the next possession with a corner three, and a defensive stop led to a graduate student forward Jacob Grandison triple to give Illinois a 6-2 lead early.

Following another empty possession for Penn State, Illinois went to Cockburn in the post, and he was fouled by John Harrar while shooting. Cockburn would make both at the line.

Nittany Lion junior forward Seth Lundy ended Illinois’ 8-0 run, drilling a three while falling to the ground.

On Penn State’s next offensive possession, Frazier switched onto Lundy, and Lundy attempted to back Frazier into the paint. Frazier held his own despite being shorter and lighter, forcing Lundy into a fadeaway, which was blocked by Grandison, who double-teamed at the last second.

Grandison grabbed the ball and attacked on the fast break, only to lose the ball under the rim.

With 14:23 left in the first half, Illinois led by three points, 8-5. Grandison grabbed sophomore guard Andre Curbelo’s missed floater and passed it to junior center Omar Payne. 

Payne spun around his defender, leaving him bewildered as Payne laid in a left-handed layup, which earned him the loudest cheer of the night at that point.

Pickett and sophomore forward Caleb Dorsey hit shots that grew the Nittany Lions’ total to 11, but Hawkins dropped in a baby hook in between them, which gave Illinois 12.

Graduate student guard Alfonso Plummer scored his first three points of the night after running his man through two screens and receiving a pass from Curbelo. With 11:33 to go, Illinois led 15-11. Curbelo extended Illinois lead to six with a crafty layup in traffic, but a 7-0 run by Penn State gave them their first lead since the first minute of play, 18-17.

Seemingly more aggressive than he was to start, Curbelo looked to attack again, getting past his man but this time drawing a foul. He made both free throws to return the lead to the Illini.

Curbelo’s basket sparked a 7-0 run for Illinois, capped off by a fifth-year senior guard Da’Monte Williams three, made possible by some Nittany Lion miscommunication. Penn State’s redshirt senior forward Greg Lee responded with a three of his own, cutting Illinois’ lead to 3, 24-21.

With 4:24 left in the half, Williams hit another triple, his second, but Penn State would score on three straight possessions to take a 30-27 lead. 

With 60 seconds left in the half, Penn State called a timeout up three.

Coming out of the timeout, Williams stole the ball from Lee and raced down the court before being fouled by Lundy with 37 seconds remaining. He made both free throws.

Pickett walked up the court and held the ball for about 20 seconds before initiating the play, which gave Lee a look from deep. He pump-faked, threw a jab step and a travel was called.

Curbelo received the inbound pass with 13 seconds remaining, and he attacked at the last second, putting up a fadeaway that missed off the glass at the buzzer. At halftime, Penn State led, 30-29.

Penn State sophomore guard Dallion Johnson opened the second half with an airball, and Cockburn followed with a fadeaway from five feet away. 

Frazier hit another three to give Illinois a four-point lead, but Penn State was not going anywhere. The Nittany Lions continued to battle, never letting Illinois lead by more than three.

After trailing for the first eight minutes of the half, Penn State tied the game when Lundy hit a three, his third of the night. Illinois immediately regained control 20 seconds later when Williams hit his third three of the night, and Illinois led, 42-39.

Cockburn ignited the crowd when he slammed home an alley-oop put in the air by Curbelo, who had been holding the ball in the corner. The crowd got as loud as they’d been since Payne’s spin move in the first, but Penn State responded with a 6-0 run and took a one-point lead, 47-46.

Once again Williams came to the rescue for Illinois, knocking down his fourth triple of the night.

With the game tied at 52, four minutes remaining, Williams found himself open from three again. This time he pump-faked, drove past his man and dished it to Grandison who hit a corner three.

Neither team scored for the next 90 seconds of play, as both defenses locked in and players began to show signs of fatigue.

With 58 seconds left, the ball went out of bounds but it wasn’t clear who touched it last. The refs reviewed the play for nearly five minutes before awarding the ball to Penn State, who was down three at the time.

Penn State failed to score and the Illini got the ball with 36 seconds remaining. Frazier drove to the paint and was fouled. He made the first free throw and missed the second, but Hawkins grabbed the rebound, essentially sealing the game. 

After being fouled Hawkins made both free throws, putting Illinois up 58-52. 

Johnson made a three with seven seconds remaining to keep Penn State’s hopes alive and cut the hosts’ lead in half. 



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