CHAMPAIGN — It wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was downright ugly. But at this point, Illinois will take any win, aesthetically pleasing or otherwise.
In the best conference in America, you don’t apologize for winning games, even if it is against a team threatening to be the first Big Ten team to go winless in the league for the first time in 13 years.
“Our guys found a way, and they grinded. Sometimes in February, they don’t always look sexy and pretty,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “We found a way and made some plays, and I was proud of the guys for that.”
The crowd was sparse, and justifiably so. A winter storm meant only 7,667 made their way inside the Assembly Hall on Thursday to witness the eyesore.
Officials Ed Hightower, Terry Oglesby and Brian Dorsey called 52 fouls in the game.
“It was a foul every play. There’s no flow to the game,” said Penn State coach Patrick Chambers, whose team was whistled for 31 infractions. “(Illinois) shot 36 free throws, and I understand at the end we’re fouling, but that’s too many fouls. This is probably the fifth game where the opponent has shot over 30 free throws. We’re not that bad defensively.”
And with all the fouls called, neither team took advantage, combining to shoot 61.5 percent from the free throw line.
In the grand scheme of things, none of that really matters to Illinois (20-8, 7-7 Big Ten). The win is all that matters, and Groce’s club has been racking those up lately. The five-game win streak is the longest in Big Ten play in three years.
The key for the turnaround has been the team’s defense, and it was strong again Thursday, holding the Nittany Lions (8-18, 0-14) to two points fewer than their season average and forcing 16 turnovers.
Brandon Paul (16 points) eclipsed the 1,500-point mark for his career against Penn State, but it’s on the other end of the floor where Groce points to the senior’s growth.
“I thought Brandon Paul, two back-to-back games, was dynamite defensively with his effort and energy and the plays he made,” Groce said.
Paul was criticized back when Illinois was 2-7 in conference play for his performance on that end of the floor, but he’s elevated his play and that’s coincided with Illinois’ recent surge.
“I just wanted to be active. A lot of people, they look at the end of games to see how many points people scored,” Paul said. “It’s not all about points, it’s the little things. We’ve been playing well lately because our defense has been a lot better the last few weeks. I just wanted to do something to help my team other than putting the ball in the basket.”
D.J. Richardson (18 points) reached double figures for the ninth straight game for the Illini, who got at least six points from four other players.
“Really proud of our guys for grinding it; they just kind of grinded. I thought that each guy that played made a play or two that contributed to the win,” Groce said.
Penn State got 20 points from Jermaine Marshall and 17 from Sasa Borovnjak.
“Their enthusiasm is amazing,” Groce said of Penn State. “Their energy level, they just play so hard, they’re physical, they’re tough, and I admire all that in the midst of some adversity. I think that shows a lot about their character.”
Because of a winter storm, 7,667 fans made their way to the Assembly Hall to see the Illini scratch and claw their way to 7-7 in Big Ten play, the first time they’ve been .500 or better this late in a season since ending the 2010-11 season 9-9.
What the Nittany Lions said
“John Groce is doing a great job. His energy, his fire, his enthusiasm; Illinois is playing with a lot more toughness and defensive-minded. He’s doing a really good job.” — coach Patrick Chambers
What the Illini said
“I’ve got to give (Penn State) a lot of credit. They were physical, they played hard, they play with a lot of passion. They just wouldn’t go
away; they just kept fighting.” — coach John Groce
What it means
With the win, the Illini now have won 20 or more games in the regular season for the second time in the last five seasons. The other time the Illini reached that number during that stretch, they made the NCAA tournament.
The Illini will look for their first six-game conference winning streak since the 2004-05 season on Sunday at seventh-ranked Michigan, which won 70-64 last month in Champaign.