Illinois snaps losing streak with win over Penn State

After Illinois’ loss to Wisconsin last week, John Groce said his staff was trying anything and everything to get out of an eight-game rut. Groce proved it by changing up his starting lineup Sunday for the first time all season.

The decision paid off.

Freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill were inserted into the starting lineup in place of seniors Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey, and it was Nunn and Hill who led the way in a 60-55 win over Penn State in State College, Pa.

It was the Illini’s first win since they last saw the Nittany Lions on Jan. 4 in Champaign. The victory snapped the program’s longest losing streak since the 1973-74 season.

Nunn played the best game of his young collegiate career, scoring 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting. He hit four 3-pointers in his 31 minutes of playing time, none bigger than a triple from the corner with 20 seconds left and a one-point Illinois lead. Hill finished with 11 points, also a career-high.

The game was back and forth from the opening tip. Penn State jumped out to a 16-7 lead, but Illinois didn’t let its foe extend the lead any further. The Illini rallied back to grab the lead, and the two teams went into halftime even at 31-31.

In the two teams’ first meeting, D.J. Newbill scored only seven points and was ejected for shoving Nunn. This time around, Penn State’s top scorer led his team with 19 points in the losing effort. Running mate Tim Frazier added 11.

“When Frazier and Newbill put big numbers up, they’re very difficult to defend and ultimately beat,” Groce said prior to Sunday’s game. “We won (on Jan. 4) because we defended. The drum we’re going to beat is getting that (defense) back.”

Newbill and Frazier pestered Illinois’ defense all game long Sunday, but the Illini definitely replicated the defense Groce has been searching for. Illinois held Penn State to just 38.2 percent shooting from the field.

The Nittany Lions didn’t score for more than eight minutes after the 9:44 mark of the second half. Illinois ended the game on an 11-3 run.

Bertrand played a season-low 13 minutes and did not score. Ekey, despite not getting the start, hit two 3-pointers and added another three free throws for a total of nine points.

It was the Illini’s first win in State College since the 2009-10 season. The teams are now even in the Big Ten cellar at 3-8 in conference play. Illinois will try to carry the momentum from the win into a trip to Nebraska on Wednesday.

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.