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BASKETBALL | Lions Advance in B1G Tournament

Penn State advances to the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals for the second straight year.



Penn State Basketball
Mar 9, 2023; Chicago, IL, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions guard Jalen Pickett (22) looks to pass the ball against Illinois Fighting Illini guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (0) during the first half at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State basketball kept its postseason hopes alive, gutting out an Illinois 79-76 win in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament. The 10th-seeded Nittany Lions defeated the 7th-seeded Illini for the 3rd time this season. The Lions will take on No.2 seed Northwestern in the quarterfinal round tomorrow night.

Closing the season strong, Penn State has won 6 of its last 7 games, including victories at the buzzer in consecutive games. The win gave Penn State its 12th 20-win season in program history. More importantly, the Lions’ earned their 6th Quad 1 win on the year, enhancing their odds of making the NCAA Tournament.

Lions Large Lead Dwindles Late in First Half

Two storylines quickly emerged in the first half.

First, Penn State struggled immensely on the glass. Illinois started the game shooting 4-14 from the field. But the Lions continued to give the Illini additional opportunities at the rim. Illinois had 9 offensive rebounds and 12 second-chance points in the first half.

Second, the Lions bucked many of their trends from this season on the offensive end. Despite being on a tear over the last month, Jalen Pickett started this game cold with only 3 first-half points. But Seth Lundy and Cam Wynter picked up the slack, scoring the team’s first 17 points. Lundy and Wynter scored 11 and 10 in the first half, respectively.

Penn State also uncharacteristically did most of its early work from inside the arc. The Lions didn’t even attempt a 3-point shot for roughly the first 7 minutes of the game. Meanwhile, Penn State had 18 points in the paint for the half.

Penn State improved its rebounding midway through the half and used Illinois’s cold start offensively to jump out to a 10-point lead with 8:22 remaining. But given the size advantage the Lions have played with all year, it didn’t last long. The Illini used the inside edge and a 4-minute Penn State scoring drought to make it a 29-28 game with 2:12 left in the half. Both sides exchanged baskets in the final minute, and Penn State went into halftime with a 31-30 lead.

Gritty, Not Pretty

Both sides traded scores for much of the second half. Illinois extended its lead to 6 points when foul trouble forced Penn State to switch to a smaller lineup. But the Lions quickly responded, and the lead seemingly changed hands with every possession. In total, there were 13 lead changes and 6 ties in the game.

With under 7 minutes to play, the game was all square at 56. Micah Shrewsberry was forced to go small again after Michael Henn and Kebba Njie earned their 4th fouls. However, this actually sparked Penn State offensively. The Lions scored 6 quick points to go up 62-56 closing in on the 5-minute mark. Illinois was in the bonus early in the half but struggled from the line, helping Penn State to extend the lead.

They may not have been looking for the 3-ball early in the first half, but it certainly benefitted the Lions down the stretch. Overall, the Nittany Lions struggled from deep, going 8-21 on the night. That is, except for Andrew Funk. Funk’s 5th made 3-pointer of the half (6th total) gave Penn State a 12-point advantage with 1:39 to go. This was the largest lead of the night by either side, and it came at the perfect time for the Nittany Lions.

Illinois continued to hang tough. A Penn State turnover helped the Illini make it a 75-70 game with 20 seconds remaining. The Nittany Lions missed several chances to put this game away late. But ultimately, the Lions accrued enough of a cushion and won 79-76.

He didn’t have the greatest scoring night of his career, but Jalen Pickett still found a way to influence the game. Pickett only had 12 points but grabbed 8 rebounds and 8 of Penn State’s 13 assists. His role as a facilitator helped other Lions have strong scoring performances. Funk led all scorers with 20 points, while Wynter and Lundy added 18 and 17, respectively.

Maybe it wasn’t the smoothest win, but when is it ever with Penn State basketball? The team’s motto is “gritty, not pretty,” after all.

Penn State Basketball: Survive and Advance

With the win, Penn State has won at least one game in the Big Ten Tournament in 5 of the last 6 tournaments (2020 was canceled). It also means that the Nittany Lions will advance to the quarterfinal round for the 2nd straight year.

The victory also helps to strengthen the Lions’ case come Selection SundayPenn State has a 6-6 record against Quad 1 opponents this season. Micah Shrewsberry’s squad will have the chance to get their 7th Quad 1 win tomorrow when Penn State plays Northwestern. The quarterfinal matchup will tip off at 6:30 PM EST on the Big Ten Network.

Because of some ugly losses, the Lions have basically been in tournament mode for the last month. And minus a few hiccups, Penn State has delivered. Thursday’s victory may ultimately prove to be enough to get the Lions into the tournament. Still, another win against Northwestern could essentially seal the deal.

“I hope we’ve done enough, but we want to keep winning,” Shrewsberry said after the game.

March may be all about chaos and luck, but best not to leave anything to chance. Penn State has its postseason fate in its own hands now.

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Matt is a co-owner and Editor in Chief of Basic Blues Nation. Launched in 2022, Basic Blues Nation is one of the fastest-growing websites covering all Penn State athletics, with over 3.5 million readers in 2023. Matt is also a credentialed member of the Penn State football beat, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America.


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