CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Penn State had the optimal strategy to deal with Illinois and All-American center Kofi Cockburn and put itself in position to win. The problem was that the Nittany Lions couldn’t get the shot they needed to get over the hump.
Penn State had plenty of chances to pull ahead in the final five minutes, but the Nittany Lions couldn’t find the net until it was too late. After playing the Fighting Illini to a draw for 35 minutes, Penn State missed nine consecutive shots, allowing Illinois to pull ahead and ultimately ice the game at the foul line for a 60-55 win.
“This league is unforgiving,” Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry said. “We played our worst game of the season on Sunday (against Nebraska), but who we were (Thursday) night, that’s us. That’s how we play, and that’s how we fight, and when we fight like that, we give ourselves a chance.
“I thought our guys played as hard as possible and executed our game plan. We gave ourselves a chance; we just couldn’t come away with it at the end.”
The Nittany Lions (12-15, 7-12) got several great looks at a game-tying 3-point attempt, but each one bounced away for a long rebound, allowing Illinois (21-8, 14-5) to dictate play in the final minute. For the second half, the Nittany Lions shot 3-for-14 from behind the 3-point arc, one of just two fundamental flaws in the Penn State strategy of keeping Cockburn at bay.
The other was Illinois guard Da’Monte Williams, who took advantage of Penn State refusing to guard him by hitting four of 10 shots from behind the arc, leading the Illini with 14 points while stars Cockburn and Alfonso Plummer combined to score just 16.
“You have to choose, and you’ve got to pick your poison,” Shrewsberry said. “I thought our guys did a good job of being in on Kofi but also being out on Plummer. We did what we wanted to do defensively, we just made a couple of mistakes at the end, and they capitalized.
“I coached against Da’Monte Williams (at Purdue). I know how tough that kid is. He makes big shots, he makes big plays, he’s an elite role player, and I’m daring him to shoot the basketball at home. But you have to take something away. I thought our guys did it, but he stepped up and made big plays for them.”
Illinois coach Brad Underwood said he wasn’t surprised by Penn State’s strategy.
He’d seen Purdue try similar tactics in the past against his team, and he was pleased that the Fighting Illini looked for the shots Penn State was willing to give them.
“You’ve got to take what you get in a 55-possession game,” Underwood said. “We saw a lot of things that we normally see with guys not being guarded, triangle and two zones. If you start looking at our shot chart, there are not many nights Da’Monte Williams is going to lead us in attempts.”
The strategy worked as well as it did because Penn State responded from playing poorly at Nebraska with one of its best team efforts of the season. Even after losing John Harrar to foul trouble, Greg Lee stepped up inside, and Jalen Pickett (18 points) hit several key shots to keep the Fighting Illini from taking advantage of Harrar’s absence.
More importantly, the Nittany Lions stuck to their strategy at all times, even when Illinois found the soft spots in the defense.
“It almost worked,” Shrewsberry said. “It takes a lot of maturity because you can easily say, ‘I’m not going to let this dude score anymore, but then Kofi’s getting dunks, put backs and whatever he wants to do. They stuck with it; we’ve got some dudes that are all in.”
Penn State will have to keep up that mentality as it goes to Rutgers in a must-win situation to avoid the opening round of the Big Ten tournament. The Nittany Lions are now tied with Maryland for 10th place, but the Terrapins own the tiebreaker, meaning Penn State must replicate Thursday’s effort to avoid playing on Wednesday.
“Our defense has traveled,” Shrewsberry said. “It’s kept us in games and given us a chance, but our offense has not always gone with us. We’ll have to take it to (Rutgers and) Indianapolis and hope it gives us an opportunity.”