D.J. Newbill’s baseline runner drew applause from teammates Ross Travis and Graham Woodward on Penn State’s bench. His shot, arced over 6-foot-7 Illinois forward Jon Ekey off one foot, was one of the toughest to fall all night.
But the Nittany Lions would only get one more shot to drop in the final 9:44, and by then, it was too late. A three-point Penn State lead turned to a four-point deficit as the Lions missed eight straight field goal attempts. Jump shots went long, layups rimmed out and frustration built late in Penn State’s 60-55 loss to the Fighting Illini (14-10, 3-8) in a Big Ten matchup at the Bryce Jordan Center on Sunday.
When it was over, Penn State coach Patrick Chambers summed up the ice-cold decisive stretch simply in seven words.
“We got to knock down some shots,” Chambers said.
Penn State (12-12, 3-8) came to life at times. The Lions used a 9-0 run to tie the game heading into the half, got 11 straight points from Tim Frazier at one point and saw Brandon Taylor and John Johnson carry the offense at another. But when it mattered most, the Lions couldn’t buy a bucket.
The troubling finish for Penn State overshadowed Frazier setting the program’s career record for assists (602), Newbill turning in another strong performance with 19 points and Illinois freshman forward Kendrick Nunn’s 19 points in his first career start.
“I thought the statistic that stood out to me was that we were able to hold them to one field goal in the last 9:44,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “I thought when we needed our defense the most, we were able to affect them at a certain level.
“I know sometimes you miss shots, and at times they certainly did that, but I thought overall we were able to impose our will a little bit defensively the last 9:44.”
Penn State trailed 31-22 in the first half before closing it on a 9-0 run led by Frazier and Newbill.
Newbill’s 3-pointer with one second left on the shot clock kickstarted an offense that had gone nearly four minutes without a field goal. Frazier finally scored on the next possession, speeding down the court and finishing through contact.
His free throw cut the deficit to 31-28 with 2:18 left in the half. His 3-pointer nearly a minute later tied it. And the Lions got a stop on the final possession to go into the break tied at 31.
Late in the second half, when Penn State needed a similar run to salvage the game, the Fighting Illini made sure Frazier and Newbill didn’t beat them. The guard tandem took just three of the team’s eight shots during PSU’s scoreless streak.
“We just missed shots,” Frazier said. “They played defense the way their coach had them playing defense, but we just missed shots.”
After Newbill’s runner over Ekey gave Penn State a 52-49 lead with 9:44 left, Donovon Jack had his jump shot blocked by Nnanna Egwu to start the drought.
Frazier then missed from 3-point range. Johnson couldn’t finish on a drive to the basket, but attacked again to draw Illinois’ seventh team foul. He went to the line for the one-and-one and missed the first off the back rim.
Illinois’ Malcolm Hill knocked down a jumper to cut the Penn State lead to 52-51 with 6:30 left.
Frazier turned it over on the next possession. Egwu came out to help on Newbill and swatted away his pull-up attempt at the foul line. Illinois responded with a layup by Nunn to move ahead 53-52 with 5:15 to play.
Still mired in its slump, Penn State committed another costly turnover, this time by Johnson, whose pass intended for Newbill was deflected and stolen by Ekey. With the Lions down 54-52 after an Illini free throw, Frazier left a layup short.
Penn State corralled the offensive rebound and called timeout, setting up a play looking for Frazier. But Jack couldn’t find him and Illinois prevented his dribble handoff for Newbill, so he took an awkward jump shot at the elbow.
The shot missed, as did 3-pointers by Newbill and Woodward.
“We need somebody to make an open shot,” Chambers said. “We got to hit a jump shot, and I thought we had open ones.”
Penn State didn’t hit until it was too late.
Newbill’s layup with 16 seconds left was the Lions’ first field goal since his runner, but Illinois’ Nunn hit a 3-pointer on the previous possession to put it out of reach.
“We really were struggling to score,” Chambers said. “We had chances, we had opportunities, we got layups, again we got good shots, we got to the free-throw line and we got 1-for-2, we miss the front-end of a one-and-one.
“Those are big-time plays, they’re winning plays.”