Illinois got its biggest win of the season earlier this week against Northwestern. It followed that big win up in less-than-ideal fashion.
Illinois couldn't keep the momentum going Saturday, falling at home to Penn State — a team that entered just one spot ahead of the Illini in the Big Ten standings — by an 83-70 score.
The defining stretch came at the end of the first half, when the Nittany Lions broke away from a 27-all tie and closed the opening 20 minutes on a 14-2 run, building a double-digit lead that lasted much of the remainder of the game.
A Maverick Morgan layup squared the score at 27 with four and a half minutes remaining, but Penn State caught fire from there, hitting six of its next eight shots including a pair of 3-pointers as Illinois turned the ball over three times and only got off three shots — just one of which went in — during that stretch. Payton Banks accounted for 10 of those 14 points, including the back-to-back 3-pointers in the half's final two minutes.
That spurt allowed the Lions to run up a double-digit advantage they grew as big as 19 in the second half, a 62-43 lead standing with fewer than nine minutes to play. That's when the Illini busted off a run of their own, scoring the next 14 points thanks in part to four Lions turnovers. Offensive contributions from Te'Jon Lucas, Morgan and Jalen Coleman-Lands shrunk the gap into the single digits, and a 3 from Tracy Abrams got the Illini within five points with about five minutes to play. But Penn State snatched the momentum back, Banks and Lamar Stevens completing back-to-back three-point plays to stretch the gap back out to 11 in a blink. Once more Illinois got within single digits, but that didn't last long and the gap was double digits for the game's final three minutes.
The Lions were red hot shooting the ball, shooting 56.9 percent on the game and a scorching 60 percent in the second half alone. Penn State was a whopping 18-for-20 from the free-throw line and beat Illinois on the boards 27-20. The Illini scored 17 points off 14 Lions turnovers but missed eight shots from the free-throw line.
Banks led the way for Penn State with a game-high 24 points, and Stevens scored 21 points. Tony Carr dropped 19 points for the Lions.
Malcolm Hill led the Illini with 14 points, with Coleman-Lands (12 points) and Lucas (11 points) also scoring in double figures.
A home loss to another one of the conference's worst teams was one of the worst possible ways to follow up that big win in Evanston. Illinois dropped to 14-12 overall and 4-9 in the Big Ten with the loss and has lost seven of its last nine games. Any NCAA tournament hopes that existed were surely crushed with this defeat, perhaps the most winnable game that remained on the schedule given the Illini's generally woeful performance away from Champaign this season.
Meanwhile, the win bumped Penn State to 14-12 overall and 6-7 in the Big Ten standings, vaulting above Ohio State and Indiana. The Lions have back-to-back victories and next play at Nebraska on Tuesday.