CHAMPAIGN – D.J. Richardson started slow Thursday but finished with 18 points and hit a pair of key free throws late in Illinois’ ugly 64-59 win over Penn State.
The win was the fifth straight for Illinois (20-8, 7-7 Big Ten). But facing a team that hadn’t won since late December, it didn’t come easy.
Jermaine Marshall’s 3-pointer brought Penn State within 62-59 with 5 seconds left. Richardson then sank a pair of free throws that sealed the win.
Penn State (8-18, 0-14) has lost 14 straight. Marshall led the Nittany Lions with 20 points. Travis Ross and Kevin Montminy fouled out late.
Illinois entered the game on a hot streak that included wins over No. 1 Indiana and then-No. 18 Minnesota. The victories resurrected Illini hopes of a NCAA tournament spot after a midseason slump.
On Thursday, every Penn State rally – often accompanied by a cold stretch from Illinois – threatened to undo much of the good of those wins.
Free throws finally sealed the win. The Nittany Lions committed 31 fouls and sent the Illini to the line 36 times. Illinois made 23.
Illinois and Penn State have a history of ugly basketball – the Nittany Lions won a 38-33 barn-burner in Champaign in 2009 – and of playing on nights when the weather makes many fans think twice. The 2011 game in Champaign was played in front of just more than 3,000 of the Illini’s closest friends.
Thursday, they combined the two. With snow coming down outside, just under 7,800 fans drifted into the 16,450-seat Assembly Hall. And the teams spent the first 20 minutes finding ways not to score.
Penn State was shooting 44.4 percent at the half, but the Nittany Lions had taken only 18 shots. Illinois had four 3-pointers but was just 8 of 22 from the field.
Brandon Paul, Illinois’ leading scorer this season, entered the game needing a single point to become the 10th player in Illini history to score 1,500 in his career. So he opened the game 0 of 4 from the field and 0 of 2 at the free-throw line. His first 3-point attempt missed well to the right of the basket, the backboard and the lane.
The senior finally passed 1,500, but it took him more than 16 minutes to do it. He hit a 3-pointer with 3:21 left in the half to put Illinois up 25-20. Paul finished with 16 points.
The 13-game losing streak Penn State brought to Champaign included a four-game run of “almost, but not quite.” The Nittany Lions came close in each of those last four losses, to Purdue — which Penn State led at the half — Nebraska, Iowa and, Sunday, No. 4 Michigan.
On Thursday, though, Penn State showed a little of why they all ended in losses.
Down 29-20 at the end of a brutal first half, the Nittany Lions went on a 10-2 run to open the second. Eight of those points came from Marshall, the last of them on a 3-pointer with 15:40 to play that pulled Penn State to within 31-30.
Then, with Illinois unable to find the bucket, Penn State coughed up the ball on back-to-back possessions, wasting two chances to pull ahead. Paul made them pay, draining a 3-pointer for a 34-40 lead with 14:04 to play.
Penn State turned the ball over 16 times in all.
Illinois now heads to No. 7 Michigan on Sunday before coming home to face Nebraska next week. Penn State gets a break before trying again for its first conference win Wednesday at home against the Wolverines.