Penn State goes cold down stretch in loss

UNIVERSITY PARK – Illinois coach John Groce offered the understatement of the evening after his bumbling team beat stumbling Penn State 60-55 at the Jordan Center Sunday.

“The statistic that stood out is that we were able to hold them to one field goal in the last 9:44,” Groce said. “…We were able to impose our will a little bit defensively the last 9:44.”

A little bit?

The Nittany Lions took a 52-49 lead with 9:44 left in the game when D.J. Newbill hit a midrange jumper. They did not score again until Newbill made one of two free throws with 51 seconds left and did not get another field goal until … you guessed it … Newbill hit a layup with 16 seconds to go.

The loss was PSU’s second straight after it put together a three-game winning streak and dropped the team’s record to 12-12 overall and 3-8 in the Big Ten.

As far as conference defeats go, it was by far the most damaging for the Nittany Lions this year. The Illini had dropped eight in a row – dating back to a 75-55 blowout of Penn State in Champaign Jan. 4. They improved to 14-10 and 3-8.

PSU senior Tim Frazier tried to spin it as if the lack of offense was not the most serious problem for the Nits, saying, “Our staples are defending and rebounding, so if we can’t score, we want to continue to defend and get rebounds. Obviously, Illinois pulled it out tonight.”

In truth, Penn State actually defended well for most of the game, and held the Illini to just 11 points over the game’s last 12:52. The Lions had more overall rebounds (34-33), more offensive rebounds (11-8) and more second-chance points (14-10), too.

“Defensively, we did a good job,” third-year PSU coach Pat Chambers said.

But of the nearly nine-minute stretch without a single point, he added, “It’s a long time not to score.”

Amazingly, when Newbill hit one of two freebies with 51 seconds left, the Lions were still very much in it (trailing 54-53). But missing the second of the two prevented them from tying, and proved critical when Illini rookie Kendrick Nunn made a 3-pointer with 22 seconds to play. Suddenly, it was a two possession game for PSU, which trailed 57-53.

Newbill scored on the layup six seconds later – PSU’s only field goal in nearly 10 minutes was uncontested – and Illinois made three of four free throws the rest of the way to escape with the victory.

“It was a battle,” Chambers said. “It was flat out hand-to-hand combat. They made the necessary plays to win and we didn’t.”

Game notes: Frazier passed Freddie Barnes for Penn State’s all-time assist record when he hit Donovan Jack for a layup in the game’s opening minute. But he had only two assists in this game (and now has 602 in his career). … Newbill led Penn State with 19 points and Frazier was the only other Lion in doubles with 11 (on 4-of-12 shooting). … Nunn had a career-high 19 to lead the Illini. His previous career high was eight. … Penn State is at Indiana Wednesday for a 7 p.m. tip. BTN will carry the game.