UI 60, Penn State 55: 'It feels great'
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The last time Kendrick Nunn heard his name called in a starting lineup was 11 months ago in the Class 4A state title game for Simeon. So, forgive the Illinois freshman if he didn’t know what to do when his name was called with the Illini starters before Sunday’s game against Penn State at Bryce Jordan Center.
The other Illinois starters calmly made their way toward the free throw lane in front of their bench. Nunn sprinted toward the midcourt line aimlessly when his name was called, stopping quickly to join the other Illini who had a laugh at the expense of the 6-foot-3 guard.
“What are you doing, man, this ain’t high school. You don’t shake hands with the referees,” fellow freshman Malcolm Hill said to Nunn when he took his rightful place among the other starters.
It was one of few mistakes Nunn made Sunday, though, scoring a career-high 19 points, including a three-pointer from the corner with 20 seconds remaining in a 60-55 win, ending an eight-game Illinois losing streak.
“I was just too pumped, my adrenaline was rushing. I was just going,” Nunn said of his pregame gaffe.
Nunn (four rebounds) and Hill (11 points, three rebounds) made the first starts of their collegiate careers Sunday and were the only Illinois players to reach double figures in scoring. Senior Jon Ekey came off the bench for the first time this season to score nine points and Illinois’ top scorer Rayvonte Rice (seven rebounds) also had nine.
Illinois coach John Groce informed the team before the trip to Penn State that the freshmen would enter the starting lineup, replacing Ekey and fifth-year senior Joseph Bertrand, each of whom had started the previous 23 games.
“It could potentially for sure. I think we’ve got to grow and get better at it,” Groce said when asked if he’d stick with Sunday’s starting lineup going forward. “We talked about that the last couple days. We thought it might be in the best interest for us moving forward to do that.”
Nunn had scored eight points three times this season but never cracked double figures until Sunday. Hill’s previous career high was 10 on Dec. 10 against Dartmouth. The rookie duo had shown flashes in recent games and they put it together against the Nittany Lions (12-12, 3-8).
“They said I was being a little bit too passive, so I wanted to keep forcing the issue on offense and try to get more aggressive and make more plays,” Hill said.
It was the first win for the Illini since a 75-55 win against Penn State at home on Jan. 4. The eight-game losing streak was the longest the program had suffered in 40 years. How far had the Illini fallen? Only two members of the regular Illinois media contingent followed the team to Happy Valley as many outside the program have grown frustrated or indifferent.
“Every once in a while you want that result or that reward to have an opportunity to win a basketball game,” Groce said. “I’m really happy for our players and proud of them.”
Said Hill: “It feels great, relieving, get the monkey off our backs.”
Illinois received a shot in the arm from the Orange Krush student section, which sent 120 members of the organization to Sunday’s game after a 12-plus-hour bus ride.
As Nunn was being interviewed on the court by the Big Ten Network’s Shon Morris, the Krush members chanted his name.
“It’s an honor. I thank the Orange Krush, and hopefully they keep supporting us,” Nunn said.