No. 14 Penn State at Illinois, 8 p.m. Thursday
Illinois (7-7, 0-1 Big Ten)
Pos. Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Ivory Crawford Jr. 5-10 13.9
G Alexis Smith Jr. 5-9 8.9
G/F Amber Moore Sr. 5-11 17.9
F Nia Oden Jr. 5-10 1.5
C Jacqui Grant Fr. 6-3 12.4
FYI: Crawford scored 20 points Friday against Wisconsin for her fourth 20-plus performance of the season.
OFF THE BENCH
G Sarah Hartwell So. 5-10 9.8
C Sarah Livingston Fr. 6-2 4.8
G/F Taylor Tuck Jr. 6-0 4.6
Penn State (10-3, 1-0)
Pos. Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Maggie Lucas Sr. 5-10 21.5
G Dara Taylor Sr. 5-8 11.9
G/F Ariel Edwards Sr. 6-3 13.5
F/C Talia East Sr. 6-3 6.3
F/C Tori Waldner Jr. 6-5 5.4
FYI: East recorded her first career double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) in the Big Ten opener at Iowa.
OFF THE BENCH
G/F Kaliyah Mitchell Fr. 6-2 5.5
F/C Candice Agee So. 6-6 4.8
G/F Peyton Whitted Fr. 6-3 2.6
Site: State Farm Center (16,618), Champaign
Series: Penn State leads 29-14. Last meeting: Penn State 95, Illinois 62 on Feb. 2, 2013, at State College, Pa.
TV: BTN; Cory Provus (play-by-play) and LaChina Robinson (analyst).
Radio: WDWS 1400-AM and WDAN 1490-AM; Dave Loane (play-by-play) and Mike Koon (analyst).
FYI: Provus is a member of the Minnesota Twins’ broadcast team and previously was a Chicago Cubs radio pregame and postgame host.
Jeff Huth’s storylines
1. From the time Maggie Lucas played her first game against the Illini — and scored 22 points in 28 minutes — the Penn State senior has been a thorn in their side. In five career games versus Illinois, Lucas has averaged 19.2 points while shooting 50 percent from the field, including 54.8 percent from three-point range. But as her two All-America honors and reigning Big Ten Player of the Year award attest, Lucas isn’t just picking on the Illini. She enters Thursday night’s game averaging a Big Ten-leading 21.5 points this season. “Great range. Good off the dribble. She draws fouls. She moves well without the ball,” UI coach Matt Bollant said. “She was conference Player of the Year last year for a reason.” Junior guard Alexis Smith will be among the Illini attempting to keep Lucas in check Thursday night. “Just being aware of where she is on the floor, I think, is going to be a big thing for us,” Smith said. “Know she’s a shooter. We need to take that away or make it as difficult as possible for her to get her shot off.” Lucas is particularly adept at getting to the foul line and then cashing in. This season, she’s 83 of 86 on free throw attempts. Against Illinois, Lucas is a career 21 of 22 at the line. “We can’t bail her out (by fouling),” Smith said. “We need to close out to her and play smart. Wide hands. Just move our feet.”
2. Scoring contributions from Illini reserves have been particularly sparse lately. In four of its last five games, Illinois has been outscored 84-10 in bench points. For the season, opponents’ reserves are outscoring Illinois’ subs 17.6-11.9 per game. Bollant isn’t particularly concerned, however, because his starters typically have been so prolific. The Illini are averaging 74.3 points, with the first five accounting for 83.9 percent of that figure. What Bollant does want out of his bench is defense and rebounding. “I think we’ve got enough scoring in our starters (that) if (the reserves) just defend and rebound and give us a little bit of a lift offensively here or there,” the UI coach said. “But we need that defense and rebounding first.”
3. The Illini on Thursday night begin a stretch of three games in seven days. After hosting the Nittany Lions, Illinois also will be home Sunday (1 p.m.) against Nebraska before traveling to Evanston on Wednesday to face Northwestern in the makeup of a weather-postponed game. If there’s ever a good time for an NBA-type schedule, this is it because the UI is on winter break. Spring semester classes begin Jan. 21. “You (can) just focus on basketball — nothing else to worry about — so I personally enjoy it,” Smith said. The junior also doesn’t mind the rapid-fire playing schedule. “I like playing games back-to-back,” Smith said. “It keeps you going. ... It makes you have to just go on to the next game. Think next game mentality.”
Prediction: Penn State 77, Illinois 64
The Illini have lost six in a row against the Nittany Lions, their longest current losing streak against a Big Ten opponent. It would be a major upset if the skid ended Thursday night, but there were no lack of surprises during the first week of the conference race — Ohio State knocking off then-No. 17 Purdue; Northwestern throwing a 66-65 scare into then-No. 18 Nebraska — so no outcome should be ruled out. Illinois will need to shoot well and somehow cope with Penn State’s major height advantage to have a chance. (N-G prediction record: 12-2)