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Penn State Basketball Rides Experience Past Illinois in Big Ten Tournament Opener

Penn State Basketball: Andrew Funk
Photo by Penn State Athletics- Andrew Funk

CHICAGO — Nothing would rattle Penn State basketball in its Big Ten tournament opener against Illinois Thursday night.

Not the partisan Chicago crowd, which splashed the United Center in Illinois orange. Not Jalen Pickett’s relatively quiet first half, which finished with just one basket. Even Illinois’ charge to open the second half, which gave them a six-point lead and looked like it had Penn State on the ropes, wasn’t enough to throw Micah Shrewsberry’s team off. 

Penn State had seen it all before.

When a younger team might have folded, Penn State rose to the occasion. Over the final seven minutes, Penn State made all the necessary plays, earning a 79-76 win that might have punched its NCAA tournament ticket.

“We weren’t rattled at all,” Seth Lundy, who scored 17 points in the win, said. “We’ve had that lineup for two years now. We’re just a tough team. We’ve been doing it for so long that we accept the challenge every single time.”

Illinois coach Brad Underwood knew that experience gave Penn State (20-12) a significant edge against Illinois (20-12). When Penn State beat Illinois in Champaign in December, Underwood praised Penn State’s experience while ripping his team’s lack of leadership.

This time, Underwood was only full of praise for Penn State’s experience, something his young team couldn’t match.

“They’re really old, the oldest team in Power Five,” Underwood said. “They’ve got a really good player (Jalen Pickett) that is a matchup problem. They’re extremely well-coached.

“My hat’s off to Penn State. They beat us three times, so we obviously haven’t figured out what the sauce is to beat them.”

Clearly, trying to get Penn State off its game wasn’t the answer. Penn State could have easily lost its cool when Dain Dainja scored and got fouled early in the second half, putting Illinois up five. But while Dainja scored, he accidentally headbutted Myles Dread, earning a technical foul and allowing Penn State to cut the deficit to four. That was all the opening Penn State needed.

“It’s like we said, just using that momentum,” Penn State guard Andrew Funk, who led all scorers with 20 points, said. “We know we’ve played in a lot of tight games as well is the other thing. So trusting the guys around you to make plays and make shots, and I think that led to us really bearing down on defense, which was the bigger momentum swing.”

Shrewsberry wasn’t the least bit surprised. After a journey that’s lasted nearly two full seasons for many parts of this group, him included, he knew his players believed in each other when it mattered.

“I think that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot. We’ve been through a lot this year. Highs and lows throughout, and not just like a season, in like games. But there’s a belief. There’s a belief in each other that no matter what happens, we’re going to stay together and fight.

“We’re undersized. We battle. But when the game’s on the line and things aren’t going well, like this group is really, really tough at the end of the day.”

At this point, Penn State’s toughness isn’t a question. What remains a question is whether Penn State needs to do more to end its NCAA tournament drought. With another Quad 1 win under its belt and several bubble teams losing Thursday, it seems that Penn State has answered enough questions to punch its ticket.

Underwood certainly thinks so, as he used his opening statement to wish Shrewsberry and Penn State basketball luck in the NCAA tournament after falling to it for the third time this season.

“Give Penn State credit,” he said. “It was more them than it was us. They’re a tough matchup for us. Any mistake we made defensively, they (took advantage), and we’ve never guarded Funk. I don’t know what he’s had against us, but we haven’t guarded him very well.”

But Penn State’s reaction wasn’t one of a team that thought it had finished the job. When Penn State came off the court victorious, it did so with a muted celebration. Other than Dread clapping to a small group of navy-clad fans, Penn State looked like a team that expected to win and considered Thursday just one part of the job for Penn State basketball in Chicago.

“I love this group, and we want to keep playing here,” Shrewsberry said. “I’m not going to put anything in front of (Friday’s) game. We’re going to play as long as possible.”

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