CHAMPAIGN — Of the many things Illinois has done poorly this disappointing basketball season, the two that rank highest on the list might be end-of-half or end-of-game in-bounds plays or prolonged scoring droughts.
When Illinois crams both of them into the same game, as happened Sunday night against Penn State, a close game can turn into a runaway.
Penn State, which trailed by four with just seconds to go in the first half, cashed in on an Illini mistake to take a one-point halftime lead, then sped ahead as Illinois suffered a scoring drought of 7:17 minutes to open the second half. The result was a 74-52 victory that kept alive the Nittany Lions’ NCAA Tournament hopes.
Those hopes are long gone for an Illini team that has lost 9 of 11 and whose record dipped to 12-14 overall and 2-11 in Big Ten Conference play.
All five Penn State starters scored in double figures led by Shep Garner, who hit four 3s and scored 16 points, and Tony Carr, who added 15 points and six assists.
Leron Black scored 18 for the Illini but Penn State (18-9, 8-6) clamped down on Illini freshman Trent Frazier, who had scored 32 last Thursday against Wisconsin. For just the second time in the last 16 games, Frazier failed to score in double figures. He hit two first-half 3-pointers then was held scoreless in the second half.
He finished 2-for-11 shooting, and when he launched one coach Brad Underwood didn’t care for in the second half, Underwood shouted at his point guard, “Trent, you’re 2-for-100!”
Without Michael Finke, and with Black and Frazier each with two first-half fouls, Illinois battled in the first half, thanks to Te’Jon Lucas, Kipper Nichols and some fairly good play from Greg Eboigbodin.
Ahead 36-32 late in the half, Illinois suffered a mini-meltdown. Penn State’s Tony Carr tossed up an air ball 3. But Penn State grabbed the rebound and flipped it to Shep Garner, who nailed a 3 out of the corner.
That cut the Illini lead to 36-35, and Underwood called timeout with 3.7 seconds to go.
But on the in-bounds pass, Mark Alstork stepped over the end line, resulting in a turnover. And Penn State successfully threw the in-bounds pass to Carr, who converted under the basket to grab a 37-36 halftime lead.
After the five-point swing, Penn State coach Pat Chambers said he found an energized team waiting for him when he reached the halftime locker room.
“I saw better body language. You could see that their shoulders were back and their heads were high," Chambers said. "Then they started writing stuff on the board on their own and that’s fantastic. It shows leadership.”
Still, Underwood noted, Illinois only trailed by one.
That quickly changed as Penn State got rolling and Illinois did not.
The Nittany Lions pushed the lead to 10 when Carr’s 3-pointer capped a 9-0 run to open the second half that made it 46-36 with 13:29 to play. At that point, Illinois had missed nine straight shots with two turnovers.
Another 3-pointer by Garner made it 49-36, and it wasn’t until the 12:43 mark that Black scored on a hook shot to break a drought that stretched for 8:34 minutes back to the first half.
Just seven days ago Illinois went more than 11-and-a-half minutes without a point at Ohio State.
Underwood said his team simply stopped running offense and stopped making the extra pass, which helped Illinois keep it close in the first half.
“We didn’t run anything,” he said. “We’re a team right now that (makes) one mistake and we just hang our heads. It affects the next play.”
Illinois changed up its starting lineup Sunday partly out of necessity and partly because coach Brad Underwood wanted someone other than Nichols in his top five.
Finke did not dress and watched the game from the trainer’s room after suffering a concussion in Saturday’s practice.
That gave freshman Eboigbodin his first career start, and Aaron Jordan joined him in the lineup in place of Nichols.
Illinois goes back on the road Wednesday and plays at Indiana. Tipoff is at 7:30 p.m.