By Shannon Ryan
CHAMPAIGN – Brandon Paul tried to warn his younger teammates.
He understood the history of the wrestling matches that have become common in Penn State-Illinois basketball games. The Nittany Lions’ winless Big Ten record should be ignored, he told them.
The senior guard was right.
It was another mind-numbing one against Penn State for the Illini, a sloppy 64-59 victory Thursday night before a depleted crowd of 7,667 as a snowstorm swirled outside of Assembly Hall.
But the Illini (20-8, 7-7), of course, will take it.
“It just shows our maturity,” Paul said. “We just kept fighting. You can’t just show up one game and compete. You have to show up every game. We knew this was going to be a fight. Their record doesn’t really show how hard they play.”
After falling to 2-7 to start Big Ten play, the Illini have won five straight for the first time since February 2010.
The Nittany Lions (8-18, 0-14) were behind by four points or fewer for much of the second half after starting with a 7-0 run. Back-to-back 3-pointers brought them back within 62-59 with 2.5 seconds remaining before D.J. Richardson hit two free throws to seal the victory.
The Illini shot only 39.5 percent from the floor, including 7 of 24 on 3-pointers, while making only 23 of 36 free throws.
They were outrebounded 34-25 overall, including 11-6 on the offensive boards.
Coach John Groce attributed most of that to Penn State.
“They played with a lot of passion,” he said. “They just wouldn’t go away. They fought. I loved the attitude and their fight and their disposition.”
The teams struggled to find shooting rhythm with 52 combined fouls called, 21 against Illinois.
“For a second there, it seemed like every post down was a foul,” forward Sam McLaurin said.
It was typical for the teams that have seen nine of the last 11 meetings decided by five or fewer points.
Richardson scored 18 points to lead the Illini for a third straight game.
Groce lauded Paul for his defense that produced two steals. He scored 16 points and reached a milestone – one he said he was unaware of – as he became the 10th player in team history to score 1,500 points or more.
“I guess it’s cool,” he said with a shrug.
The Illini can say the same about their victory that precedes a trip Sunday to No. 7 Michigan.
“I’m really proud of our guys for grinding it out,” Groce said.