STATE COLLEGE – Illinois coach John Groce started a new lineup and stopped a losing streak.
Freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill earned their first starts of the season and combined for 30 points as Illinois (14-10, 3-8) won for the first time in nine games with a 60-55 Big Ten victory over Penn State Sunday.
Nunn scored 19, shooting 7-for-9 from the field and 4-for-9 from 3-point range. Hill added 11 as the Illini overcame 38.8 percent shooting by holding Penn State to one field goal in the final 9:44.
“Hill and Nunn were terrific offensively,” Groce said. “Nunn really made some plays for us. I made a decision to start two freshmen and bring two veterans off the bench, so they had to make some sacrifices.”
Penn State (12-12, 3-8), which has lost two straight games after a modest three-game conference win streak, was led by 19 points from D.J. Newbill and 11 from Tim Frazier. Frazier also became Penn State’s career leader in assists, passing Freddie Barnes (600) with 602.
Illinois’ last victory was a 75-55 decision over Penn State Jan. 4.
The second-half pace slowed considerably late in the game as both teams combined for just 21 points in the final 13 minutes. Illinois built a 49-45 lead at the 12:52 mark but didn’t score again until 6:30 remained.
“Their defense was terrific on Tim and D.J. at the end, and their freshmen stepped up,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “They made the winning plays and big shots and when they needed to make them. That was a desperate team that we played. That was a battle.”
An open Nunn took a feed from Tracy Abrams and drained a 3-pointer from the corner with 22 seconds left, but Newbill’s immediate answer with a baseline drive brought the Lions to within 57-55.
Abrams’ two free throws – his only points – put the Illini up by four and a Rayvonte Rice rebound off a missed Frazier 3-pointer sealed it for Illinois.
“Give Nunn a lot of credit for hitting that corner three,” Chambers said. “That was a big time play.”
Baskets by Brandon Taylor and Newbill pushed the Lions up by three points, but back-to-back drives by Nunn sandwiched around Penn State turnovers enabled the Illini to regain the lead at 53-52.
“We should have continued to keep attacking,” Penn State’s Frazier said. “If we can’t score, we have to continue to defend and get rebounds. We just missed shots.”
The Illini streak ended because the Illini stopped Penn State cold as the second half wore on.
“The statistic that stood out to me was that we were able to hold them to one field goal in the last nine minutes and 44 seconds,” Groce said. “When we needed defense the most, we were able to affect them at a certain level.
“Overall, we were able to impose our will defensively a little bit.”
Rebounding was virtually even, 34-33 in Penn State’s favor, and each team committed just six turnovers.
Abrams contributed five assists and Rice led Illinois with seven rebounds, despite scoring nearly eight points under his 16.9 average.