Illinois defeats Penn State 75-55

By Johnathan Hettinger

The Illinois men’s basketball team overcame an early challenge from Penn State to defeat the Nittany Lions 75-55 on Saturday at State Farm Center, but the turning point in the game wasn’t a basketball play; instead it was a skirmish that occurred with 8:38 remaining that cleared both the Illinois and Penn State benches.

With 8 minutes and 40 seconds remaining in the second half of Saturday’s game against Penn State, Illinois freshman Kendrick Nunn hit a lay-up to extend the Illini lead to 52-43. He turned around after hitting the lay-up, running back on the court and into Penn State’s D.J. Newbill. Newbill reacted by grabbing Nunn’s head and shoving it down. Nunn turned around, bumping his chest into Newbill before the benches cleared, and the two players were separated. Newbill was given a technical foul and ejected, while Nunn wasn’t punished.

Illinois had struggled with Penn State up to that point, leading by just two at halftime and struggling to extend the lead in the second half, but, after the foul, Ekey hit two free throws, John Groce subbed in his starters and the Illini never looked back on their way to the 20-point victory.

Newbill, Penn State’s leading scorer on the season, had seven points on 2-for-8 shooting, but his contribution on the defensive end was clear after Illinois ended the game on a 23-12 run following his ejection.

Neither Groce nor Penn State head coach Pat Chambers saw the quarrel, but Chambers said Newbill’s ejection had a significant impact on the game, though he added that Illinois beat Penn State “in every facet of the game.”

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    In addition to the final tally, Illinois outshot, outrebounded and outplayed the Nittany Lions.

    Junior Rayvonte Rice led the way for the Illini with 15 points and seven rebounds, while Tracy Abrams finished with 12 points, six rebounds and five assists. After missing his first two 3-pointers to extend his miss streak to 10, senior Jon Ekey hit three 3-pointers and finished with 11 points and eight rebounds. Fellow senior Joe Bertrand finished with 11 points and seven rebounds, while center Nnanna Egwu added seven points and eight rebounds. 

    While each of the Illini starters had a solid contribution, Groce said Illinois’ bench, led by freshman Malcolm Hill’s eight points, had its best game of the season.

    “He was dynamite the last two days,” Groce said. “He was really, really good. His mind was right. He decided in the last couple days, ‘I’ve got to play better. I’m better than this.’ He was a big part of our success today.”

    In the crowd at the game was the 1988-89 Flyin’ Illini team, in town for its 25th year anniversary. The team, coaches and support staff were introduced to the crowd at halftime to a standing ovation.

    While none of the Illini on Groce’s current roster were born in 1989, they still had respect for the Illini greats, and Groce said his team could learn togetherness from one of the best Illini teams of all time.

    “It was great for our guys to see how close they were,” Groce said. “25 years later, it’s amazing how close they are. I hope 25 years later, this team will have the same feeling toward one another.”

    Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.