No. 7 Illinois men‘s basketball exits Big Ten tournament early following narrow second round loss to No. 10 Penn State


Sidney Malone

Forward Coleman Hawkins aims to make a shot on Sunday when the Illini traveled to West Lafayette, Indiana, to take on the Purdue Boilermakers in the last game of the regular season. The Illini suffered a quick exit out of the Big Ten tournament with a loss to Penn State on Thursday in Chicago.

By James Kim, Sports Editor

The Illini haven’t been able to find much luck in the Big Ten tournament since winning it all in 2021. The team suffered its second straight early exit on Thursday as it kicked off the postseason.

Illinois men’s basketball entered as a No. 7 seed in the Big Ten tournament, losing out by a mere 79-76 result in the second round to No. 10 Penn State at the United Center in Chicago.

With freshman guard Jayden Epps being made available, the Illini were given a huge boost in the guard department. For conditioning purposes, however, Epps started the game on the bench. Head coach Brad Underwood trusted his usual lineup of senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr., sophomore guard RJ Melendez, fifth-year forward Matthew Mayer, junior forward Coleman Hawkins and redshirt sophomore Dain Dainja to take the floor first for the Illini.

Coming into the matchup, the Illini had a couple of things to worry about. For one, they had been swept by the Nittany Lions in both encounters earlier this season. For another, Illinois had severely struggled to guard Penn State’s three-point shooting. Additionally, Jalen Pickett dropped a whopping 41 points against the Illini in the most recent clash.

While Illinois was able to limit Pickett’s scoring, the team suffered a mixed start to the game. During the opening ten minutes, Underwood’s squad fell behind and shot 33.3% from the field compared to the visitors’ 64.3%. The slow, error-prone play seen at the beginning of countless games this season plagued the Illini once again on Thursday night.

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    A 7-0 run by Penn State saw the visitors take a double-digit lead at the 8:22 mark. Freshman guard Sencire Harris put a halt to the run after nailing a wide open triple, and Illinois got going on an 11-2 run to cut the deficit to just one point with 2:12 remaining in the first period.

    Both teams headed into halftime with the Illini trailing by a narrow 31-30 scoreline.

    Coming out of the break, a Shannon layup and a Dainja and-one added to the team’s total, taking the lead at 35-34 with 18:12 remaining. Both teams began a gritty back-and-forth battle, exchanging the lead on each possession.

    Illinois went physical in the paint and continued to feed Hawkins and Dainja down low for quick buckets. The Illini led by six with 14:18 to go in the game before a mental lapse from the team allowed the Nittany Lions to enjoy a 7-0 run taking the lead by one point.

    With the tight contest galvanizing an energetic United Center, Shannon stepped up and sank a big three to bring Illinois back in front by two points. Penn State wasn’t finished, however, as Andrew Funk and Myles Dread nailed back-to-back triples to snatch the lead right back.

    The Illini suffered a 2:45 scoring drought in the final ten minutes of the contest, allowing the Nittany Lions to build up a six-point advantage. Shannon and Hawkins tried to chip away at the deficit, but Funk and Camren Wynter topped off a 14-3 run, increasing Penn State’s lead to double digits.

    Illinois was unable to get out of the hole despite coming close, falling to a 79-76 result for the program’s first-ever loss to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament. Next up on the horizon is the NCAA tournament, as the Illini wait to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.



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