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Penn State 79, Illinois 76: 3 Observations

Penn State: Myles Dread
Photo by Penn State Athletics: Myles Dread

CHICAGO — Penn State edged Illinois 79-76 in the second round of the Big Ten tournament at the United Center Thursday, possibly clinching its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2011. The team will face Northwestern Friday in the Big Ten quarterfinals at 6:30 ET. Here are three reasons why Penn State won.


Pickett was fairly quiet for most of the night, scoring just three points in the first 33 minutes. But when Penn State needed its star most, Pickett was there.

Over the game’s final seven minutes, Pickett scored eight points, but his on-court vision made the biggest difference. Pickett finished with eight assists because Illinois backed in on him, he dished to Camren Wynter or Seth Lundy under the basket or Andrew Funk on the arc. Too often, Illinois was out of position, allowing those three shooters to go a combined 21-for-33.

When Penn State needed points, Pickett also took care of that. More importantly, he took the ball right at Coleman Hawkins, forcing the Illini big man to land himself in foul trouble. It wasn’t a 41-point performance but one of his most important performances because Pickett took what was available.

“We’ve got a great team,” Pickett said. “I don’t have to force anything. “Just try and make the right play every time down, get the right shot for Penn State. At the end, these guys make shots.”


The play where Illinois’ Dain Dainija scored inside and got fouled could have proven devastating for Penn State. Instead, the team turned the tables Illinois when Myles Dread kept his cool.

When Dainija celebrated and accidentally headbutted Dread, Penn State’s fifth-year senior immediately turned to the official to ensure they saw what happened. The officials awarded a technical foul, changing the game’s momentum. Instead of facing a six-point deficit and a pumped-up, hostile crowd, Penn State trailed by four.

“Obviously, he got an and-one off that play, but it almost feels like we get a little bit of break with the technical foul and shooting two free throws,” Funk said.

The play was a perfect example of an older team knowing what to do in a difficult situation. Conversely, Illinois wasn’t too used to losing momentum and couldn’t recover.

“That was big because Dain just got an and-one,” Illinois guard Terrence Shannon Jr. said, “he made the free throw, and then Funk shot and made two free throws and it was their ball again. It was a big momentum changer. We could have went up six and got a stop and then went up eight.”


Out of the four teams who arrived in Chicago with work to do to get off the bubble and into the tournament, Penn State and Rutgers did the most to help themselves. Both teams won Thursday, and Penn State did it by keeping relaxed on the court. Unlike Wisconsin, which had to win and played like it was constantly thinking about that, Penn State didn’t show any signs of pressure.

“This group needs to be loose, and they need to be on the edge at the same time,” Shrewsberry said. “As soon as you let your foot off the gas, they let their foot off the gas. Sometimes I pushed it to the limit too much, and they didn’t respond to that. I had to find what was perfect for them. They had to be loose. I had to give them positivity. I had to do the things that just find them, what was perfect for this group. It took us a while to find it.”

Whatever the answer is, Penn State’s had no problem stepping up in March under Shrewsberry. Penn State’s now 3-0 in March and has won six of seven, which has it likely to earn an NCAA bid.

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