STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Would Illini Nation accept 7-3? After all the moaning and groaning, would you settle for a 7-3 Big Ten start?
This looms as possible, even likely, after Illinois, now 5-3, handed Penn State its eight straight loss, 77-67, Wednesday ahead of Saturday's home game with Indiana (the Illini are 10-1 at home) and a date at Iowa next Wednesday.
With the conference schedule toughening in February, these Illini need all the cushion they can create.
Improvement is evolving via the progress of freshmen D.J. Richardson (20 points) and Brandon Paul (10), those two adding a point to the 29 they garnered at Northwestern. At the same time, Bill Cole stepped up with four treys, and junior Mike Davis, blanked in Evanston, added 11 as the Illini shot 57 percent in the first half and 52 percent overall. Cole's last trey put Illinois ahead for good at 53-51 and Davis followed with two jumpers ahead of two huge goals by McCamey and Dominique Keller.
This was a drastic change from recent UI-Penn State tug-of-wars, four of the last five ending in one-point decisions.
In a turnaround from earlier this season, and echoing the losses to Purdue (ahead 26-18) and Northwestern (22-15 and 37-32), the Illini performed impressively during the first half.
Three straight 20-minute openings provide a glimpse of what can be. Red-hot, the Illini sank seven of their first 11 treys. McCamey was cold from the field but doled out eight of his nine assists before the break, serving three straight on a lob to Mike Tisdale, a layup for first-time starter Tyler Griffey and a trey by Cole when the spread reached 20-9.
Weber subbed four players at that juncture and the game leveled off with Talor Battle, who didn't take a shot in the first 10 minutes, meshing his first four tries, three of them from the arc.
A buzzer-beater by Davis sent Illinois dancing into the locker room with a 40-33 lead. Then, as in the last two games, the momentum evaporated in the first five minutes after the break. It didn't look like the same team as the Nittany Lions racked 13 of the first 15 points.
But this was different. Whereas Purdue and Northwestern each scored on all but one of their last dozen possessions (think about that!), Illinois produced a series of stops down the stretch. In fact, the Lions managed just two rebound goals (plus four free throws) in a 13-minute stretch that allowed Illinois to enter the last two minutes with a 64-54 lead.
The foul-marred last two minutes offered conclusive evidence that rules makers can't find an appropriate way to end these games. Illinois made 13 of 18 free throws in the last two minutes.
– Joe Paterno, at age 83, is enjoying one of his best recruiting campaigns even though he no longer travels to see Penn State prospects. First it was knee surgery in the offseason, then hip replacement last year, and now he says it is simply "too much of a circus" when he enters a high school. So he lets the assistants handle the travel workload, and they had 20 stars lined up by November ... only to discover recently, like some others, that two prizes changed their minds.
– According to Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, there is agreement between him, his board, the UI's Ron Guenther and the Chicago Cubs to play next year's game at Wrigley Field if – and this is a big if – they can work out the financial and operational questions. The field has been measured and will handle a game, just like it did years ago for the Bears. It'll be a costly ticket but a cinch sellout. People in Chicago would go to Wrigley to watch a hot dog eating contest.
– With a week to go before signing day, the Illini have 14 high school commitments but only seven hailing from six Midwest states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. SuperPrep Magazine's Bill Kurelic lists 136 quality players from these states, and the Illini have three: Proviso East defensive back Corey Cooper (16, a soft verbal), Downers Grove QB Chandler Whitmer (29) and Niles West tackle Shawn Afryl (80). Latest of a half-dozen to decommit is Houston tackle Zach Bolton.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.