By Drew Steiner
The boisterous, orange-filled United Center was silenced Thursday as the No. 7 seed Illinois Fighting Illini were knocked out of the Big Ten tournament by the No. 10 seed Penn State Nittany Lions, 79-76.
The Nittany Lions played much of the game with a smaller lineup, with the tallest player on the floor at most times being 6-foot-6 senior Seth Lundy. This brought a tough task on the defensive end as Illinois’ starting lineup featured 6-foot-9 redshirt sophomore Dain Dainja and 6-foot-10 junior Coleman Hawkins.
Lundy said this lineup is something the team is used to, and the group knows they must not only step up to the defensive challenge, but also take advantage of it on the offensive end as well.
“We have had that (smaller) lineup for two years now,” Lundy said. “We’ve been using the lineup for so long that we accept the challenge every single time. When a team is playing bigger than us, we use it to our advantage on the offensive end as well.”
Completing the three-game season sweep of Illinois, Penn State’s smaller lineup did take advantage of their quickness and outshot their way to the Big Ten quarterfinals, shooting 52% from the field compared with the Illini’s 45%.
Clutch 3-point shooting in key spots of the contest allowed the Nittany Lions to pull away at the end of the game. Fifth-year senior Andrew Funk, the Big Ten 3-point percentage leader, drained six of the Nittany Lions eight threes.
“We just stuck together,” said Funk, a transfer from Bucknell. “We have a veteran group of guys that we have closed out a lot of games with. Trusting my teammates to make plays and make shots led to us bearing down on defense as well.”
Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry told his team at the morning shootaround that a game of this stature is nothing new to them.
“This is a single-elimination tournament, and I told the group that we have been playing single- elimination basketball for about three weeks,” Shrewsberry said. “Every single game has mattered, every single game has been really important and they’ve answered the bell every single time.”
The Nittany Lions are right back in the underdog seat as they will take on the No. 2 seed hometown Northwestern Wildcats at 5:30 p.m. Friday in a quarterfinal showdown.
Drew Steiner is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can contact him on LinkedIn.