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Penn State Basketball: Nittany Lions Avoid Heartbreak, Hold Off Illinois 71-67

by on January 28, 2017 8:25 PM

Penn State avoided blowing a 20-point halftime lead on Saturday night as the Nittany Lions hung on the beat Illinois 71-67 to improve to 4-5 in Big Ten play.

How It Happened:

The Nittany Lions couldn't have started any hotter on Saturday night making their first seven shots as Penn State looked to bounce back from three straight losses in conference play. The result of their efforts was a runway opening half as the Nittany Lions shot 60% from the floor and opened the game with a near knockout blow to the visiting Illini who have won just one road game all season. Penn State shot 6-of-11 from beyond the arc in the opening 20 minutes of play to eventually take a 25-15 lead midway through the half.

From there Penn State continued to push forward as Illinois failed to find any offensive momentum but the Illini kept it from getting too out of hand as a Tony Carr layup with a second to go made it a 45-25 halftime lead.

It was reasonable to assume that Penn State's white hot shooting wouldn't continue and that was the case early in the second half as Illinois slowly chipped away at Penn State's lead. With just over 12 minutes to go in the game it was just a 12 point margin that separated the two teams. Penn State was able to muster up enough offense to keep it in double figures, but a jumper by Malcolm Hill with 7:12 to go made it just an eight point game. A few seconds later Penn State led by just six points. 

Beyond that Penn State hung on for dear life leading by eight with 4:16 to go before Kipper Nichols free throw following a dunk cut it to just three. Payton Banks responded with his only basket of the half to push the lead back out to six but Jalen Coleman-Lands answered with one of his own to make it a 65-62 game with 1:58 to go.

Illinois wouldn't get any closer though and key free throws by Shep Garner and Josh Reaves gave Penn State six big points in the final 38 seconds to seal the deal. The entire sequence set up by a Reaves' rebound with 47 seconds to go after Banks missed a three just moments earlier giving Penn State a new shot clock.

It Was Over When:

An intentional with 8.7 seconds to go sent Shep Garner to the free throw line and both shots fell giving the Nittany Lions a 69-65 lead. Illinois would hit a deep three to cut the lead to two points but free throws by Josh Reaves made it a four point game with not enough time for the Illini. 

Stat Of The Game:

if Penn State wants to look back and find a big reason that Illinois was able to work its way back into the game it may not be much more complicated than 16 total offensive rebounds. The Illini grabbed nine of them in the second half and coupled with Penn State's 34.8% shooting it was suddenly a game again at the BJC. 

If Illinois wants to look at why the game was never close in the first half, all it needs to do is see the Nittany Lions shooting 60% from the field in the opening 20 minutes of play to the tune of 18-of-30 from the floor including 6-of-11 from beyond the arc. In the second half the scripts nearly flipped as Illinois shot 52.9% from the field to Penn State's 34.8%. The results were nearly the same kinds of halves for both teams. Penn State won the first half 45-25 while Illinois won the second 42-26.

Player Of The Game:

For overall outcome of the game Shep Garner's timely free throws, baskets and strong first half were key to the Nittany Lions' victory. Garner finished the night with 18 points on 5-of-11 shooting, making four from beyond the arc. Payton Banks poured in 4-of-5 from beyond the arc for hit 17 points but was held to just a basket in the second half. Tony Carr gets the nod here though because of the freshman's complete all around performance going 6-of-11 with 13 keys points. At one point Carr had scored seven of Penn State's 17 second half points and made a few baskets to stop Illinois' runs in the second half. Several players were key for Penn State's win each in their own way, making it hard to single out any one player, Carr's contributions in the second half give him the edge here though.

Up Next: 

Penn State heads to Indiana to face the Hoosiers this Wednesday for a 6:30 tip.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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