CHAMPAIGN – Introducing his players to the 1989 Flyin’ Illini Final Four team on Friday night, Illinois coach John Groce had hoped they would be inspired by how close those teammates remain 25 years later.
“They had each other’s back,” Groce said. “Hopefully that was the No. 1 lesson they got out of it.”
Illinois displayed that loyalty in a literal way Saturday, when the bench cleared to defend Kendrick Nunn – who Penn State’s D.J. Newbill hit in the head – in the Illini’s 75-55 victory over the Nittany Lions.
Newbill ultimately was ejected, and the Illini banded together in another way: They maintained their composure.
Illinois led 52-43 when Newbill was ejected with 8 minutes, 38 seconds left to play, and closed the game with a 23-12 run.
“Basically just staying together and not let things like that get us out of our heads,” senior forward Jon Ekey said. “We’re there for each other and basically have each other’s backs.”
Illinois (13-2, 2-0 Big Ten) held Penn State to nearly 25 points less than their scoring average and limited guards Newbill (18.8 points per game) and Tim Frazier (17.4) to 17 combined points.
Penn State (9-6, 0-2) shot a season-low 29.8 percent from the field.
“We just tried to limit their touches and do what we have to do to stop them,” said Rayvonte Rice, who led the team in scoring for the 11th time this season with 15 points.
Illinois started the game and the second half with 9-0 runs, but struggled shooting, hitting only 35.7 percent for the game and just 29.6 percent in the first half.
There were still some offensive highlights.
Ekey broke out of an 0-for-10 slump on 3-pointers, hitting 3 of 6. Point guard Tracy Abrams scored all 12 of his points after halftime, though he shot only 3 of 13.
Freshman Malcolm Hill scored eight points in 18 minutes. Hill had been scoreless playing no more than five minutes in each of the previous four games.
“He decided in the last couple of days, ‘I’m better than that,’” Groce said. “He practiced really well.”
The Illini broke open the game after Newbill was ejected. Nunn bumped into Newbill after a layup, and Newbill could be seen on replays elbowing Nunn in the head.
Nunn confronted Newbill, and both benches stormed the court before officials and both coaching staffs pushed the players back to their respective benches.
A chorus of boos followed Newbill to the tunnel.
Penn State coach Pat Chambers said he would review the replay on the flight back to State College, Pa.
“I didn’t see it,” he said. “D.J. thought he got bumped. … He has to keep his composure. We need him out there.”
Other than celebrating an undefeated start to Big Ten play, the fans welcomed back the Flyin’ Illini, who were honored at halftime.
“We understand that we represent them,” Groce said. “That’s a tremendous privilege.”
Illinois 75, Penn State 55
Star of the game: Tracy Abrams, Illinois, 12 points (all in 2nd half), 6 rebounds, 5 assists
Bertrand watch: 11 points, 7 rebounds, 1 steal, 2 turnovers in 32 minutes
Up next: Illinois at Wisconsin, 8 p.m. Wednesday