After latest misstep, Illini await Wildcats for another rematch in Big Ten tournament

After latest misstep, Illini await Wildcats for another rematch in Big Ten tournament

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Plenty was on the line Sunday for Illinois.

A win at Penn State would keep the Illini out of the bottom four of the Big Ten. They could also forestall their 20th loss of the season and avoid, for a time at least, setting a new, rather ignominious program record.

So Illinois coach Brad Underwood pulled out all the stops.

He had his team at Bryce Jordan Center for an early morning shootaround. As in before 7 a.m. early, which was more like before 5 a.m. when you factor in changing time zones and the spring forward daylight saving time hit.

Illinois also abandoned its high pressure man-to-man defense and threw a 1-2-2 zone look at the Nittany Lions to start the game. A serious schematic change for a coach that hasn’t made many like it all season.

It just didn’t work.

Penn State ultimately found its way around Illinois’ zone defense after clanking three-pointer after three-pointer in the first half, and the Nittany Lions did enough offensively after the Illini switched back to high pressure denial. A sluggish Illinois offense in the second half didn’t help matters, and Penn State pulled away for a 72-56 victory and the first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament that was at stake in Sunday’s matchup.

Illinois (11-20, 7-13) finished in the bottom four of the conference for the third time in four years with the loss and will get an 8 p.m. Wednesday game against Northwestern (13-18, 4-16) at the United Center in Chicago instead.

“It’s the first time in my career I’ve ever opened a game in zone,” Underwood said. “We had them casting up threes, which is something they don’t like to do. We had a bad start to the second half, we missed a couple of easy shots, and we go from 10 assists at half to one in the second half. Trying to get consistency has been frustrating.”

Penn State (14-17, 7-13) had its own frustrations in the first half against Illinois’ zone defense.

The Nittany Lions missed 11 of their first 12 three-pointers. While Josh Reaves ultimately went 6 of 10 from beyond the arc for most of his career-high 26 points, his teammates were just 3 of 19 (15.8 percent) combined from deep.

The zone worked in the first half to deal with the matchup problems both Reaves and Lamar Stevens give the Illini. Giving up three-point shots to a 32 percent three-point shooting team was better than the alternative.

“They’re excellent in transition,” Underwood said. “They’re isolation game is one of the best in the country, and they do it from two spots that are challenging for us in Lamar Stevens and Josh Reaves.”

The other counter to those matchup problems was pace. Illinois tried to control it just as much with its offensive game plan as its zone defense.

“We felt like we had to really try to control the game with our offense in terms of patience,” Underwood said. “Take opportunities to score early, and then score late. The first half we were great.”

The second half? Not so much. Illinois finished the final 20 minutes just 5 of 24 from the field and more than doubled its made shots with 11 turnovers.

Freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu led the Illini with 16 points and eight rebounds, while fellow freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili finished with 16 points and five rebounds. Andres Feliz provided nine points off the bench and was the Illinois offense in the second half.

As good as Reaves was offensively for Penn State, he was just as dominant on the defensive end.

The Nittany Lions’ stopper did just that matched up against multiple Illini guards.

“Josh Reaves is just a world class defender,” Underwood said. “He’s my favorite player in this league. He’s got great, great length, and he never misses an assignment. … Just trying to get him away from the ball handler was what were trying to do, and when we did that he was in the passing lanes.”

The loss to Penn State leaves Illinois with a narrow focus this week in Chicago. It’s simple. A March imperative. Win and advance.

“You can’t ask for anything more than that,” Underwood said. “We’ve got to go in with the right frame of mind and a positive attitude. We’ve proven when we play we’re really good and can beat anybody. I’m expecting that.”