Hill delivers in dramatic win over Penn State

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (21) looks for space while protecting the ball during the game against Penn State at State Farm Center on Jan. 31, 2015. The Illini won 60-58.

For most of the afternoon, the game between Penn State and Illinois on Saturday was sluggish and the crowd was quiet.

But when Malcolm Hill drove past two Nittany Lions defenders and finished off a left-handed layup to give the Illini a 60-58 lead with four seconds remaining, the fans at State Farm Center erupted.

And after D.J. Newbill’s last-second floater bounced off the rim to cement the Illinois (14-8, 4-5 Big Ten) victory over Penn State (14-8, 2-7), those same fans were able to go home happy.

It was Hill who carried the Illini, scoring 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting on a day where nearly all of his teammates had a quiet offensive night. Kendrick Nunn struggled from the field, missing 12 of 14 total shots. Newbill was Penn State’s version of Hill, as the Big Ten’s leading scorer dropped 20 on the Illini.

Hill and Newbill went back and forth all afternoon, trading blows until the end. But when the final buzzer sounded, Hill had the last laugh, and his last bucket was the difference.

“On a very rugged, physical play at the rim, (Hill) stuck it in at the end,” Illini head coach John Groce said after the game.

Since Rayvonte Rice went down in early January with a hand injury, every Illinois win has been the result of Hill or Nunn carrying the team offensively. Saturday was no different, and Rice and junior guard Aaron Cosby (recovering from an eye injury) were sidelined once again.

This time, their absence wasn’t due to injury. Groce announced before the game that Cosby and Rice were both suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules, and Groce’s statement indicated it was due to poor choices off the court. The exact violation is unclear, but I’d be surprised if Cosby and Rice aren’t re-instated before the Michigan State game Feb. 7, as long as they’re healthy.

It’s been tough for Illinois with Cosby and Rice out and a depleted roster, and Saturday was another grind-it-out affair. Illini center Nnanna Egwu struggled with fouls and had a limited offensive presence, so Groce had to look to his bench for help.

Sophomore forwards Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert stepped up, especially in the second half. Four of Morgan’s six total points came during an important stretch in the second half, and when Egwu picked up his fourth foul, Colbert picked up the slack. His put-back bucket with eight minutes remaining ignited the home crowd, and both he and Morgan provided valuable minutes until Egwu returned.

And even though Egwu had a game where he made several freshman-like mistakes, he played like a senior when it mattered. Down 58-56 in the final minute, Egwu received a pass out of a double team from Hill and calmly buried a hook shot to tie the game. Jaylon Tate drew an offensive foul on Newbill on the next Penn State possession, which allowed Hill to finish it off.

Illinois needed this one to keep any hopes of an at-large NCAA tournament bid alive, and the Illini have a great shot to pick up their first back-to-back wins since Dec. 20 and 27 when a bad Rutgers team visits State Farm Center on Tuesday. At this point, it’s all about continuing to stay on the bubble until Rice and Cosby return.

The win wasn’t pretty — both teams combined for 32 turnovers. But this Illini squad who has played poorly in crunch time in multiple games this season got it done.

“Guys made plays at the end,” Tate said after the game. “And that’s all that mattered.”

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and aroux94.