As the final minutes of the first half wound down, Penn State continued to add to the highlight reel.
When Payton Banks let a 3-point attempt fly, Nittany Lions guard Tony Carr immediately raised both arms in anticipation on the opposite side of the court.
Banks connected on his third 3 to stay perfect from beyond the arc and push the Nittany Lions ahead by 16 with less than three minutes to go in the first half.
Two possessions later, Penn State guard Terrence Samuel drew the attention of two defenders on a drive down the lane and dropped off a behind-the-back pass to Mike Watkins for a dunk. The Nittany Lions were rolling.
Penn State took a 20-point lead into halftime and held on for a 71-67 win over Illinois on Saturday at the Bryce Jordan Center, snapping a three-game losing streak. The Nittany Lions talked about finishing strong to put together a 40-minute performance, but the Fighting Illini rallied to make it a one-possession game in the final minutes.
“We have to learn how to play 40 minutes in the Big Ten,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “Right now, we’re a good 20, 25 maybe. We’re good at 20. Wisconsin, first half, we’re good at 20.”
Shep Garner scored 18 points to lead four Penn State players in double figures. Banks had 17, Carr added 13 and Watkins had 10 for the Nittany Lions (12-10, 4-5 Big Ten).
Malcolm Hill finished with 19 points and seven assists for Illinois (13-9, 3-6).
The Nittany Lions shot 60 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes while limiting Illinois to 29 percent shooting to build a 45-25 halftime lead.
“Did they play like their head was held under water after getting down? Sure,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “They played harder, they played better, they rebounded. We rebounded well, we took care of the ball well enough, but first half was just not good enough, not acceptable.”
Garner got everything started with a 3-pointer.
He and Banks both knocked down three 3s in the first half.
Garner had gone 5 for 21 from beyond the arc in four games before hitting 3 of 5 long-range attempts against Wisconsin on Tuesday night.
He followed that up with a 4-for-9 performance from 3-point range Saturday.
“My teammates always tell me to shoot,” Garner said. “They’ve been telling me to shoot when I’m open, so that just gave me a little bit of confidence coming into the game.”
After the dominant first half, Penn State let Illinois back in the game.
Penn State went scoreless for more than four minutes during a stretch in the second half, allowing Illinois to close the gap to six points.
The Nittany Lions shot 34.8 percent from the field in the second half.
“I’ll look at the offense in the second half and see what we have to correct,” Chambers said. “Again, I thought we got some good shots, we just missed ‘em.”
The Fighting Illini continued to chip away at the lead in the final six minutes until pulling within 62-59 after a three-point play by Kipper Nichols with 3:04 left.
Banks answered with a 3-pointer — his lone field goal of the second half. Jalen Coleman-Lands then hit a 3 to keep Illinois within three points with less than two minutes to play.
Penn State maintained its lead and sealed the win with six free throws in the final 38 seconds.
The Nittany Lions face Indiana on the road at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. Penn State lost to the Hoosiers 78-75 on Jan. 18.