GAME NOTES: The Illinois Fighting Illini will try to extend their winning streak to four games on Saturday afternoon, as their brief two-game homestand at the State Farm Center wraps up against the Penn State Nittany Lions in Big Ten Conference action.
PSU opened up its conference slate of games on New Year's Eve by hosting nationally-ranked Michigan State, falling on the wrong end of a 79-63 decision. The Nittany Lions have now lost two of their last three contests, but they are still an impressive 9-5 on the season.
Illinois also began Big Ten action on Tuesday, as it hosted Indiana and came away with a dramatic 83-80 overtime victory to win its third straight. The Illini have been fantastic in the early going this season, running out to a 12-2 start, which includes an 8-0 mark at the State Farm Center.
The Illini hold a 25-13 lead over PSU in the all-time series, which includes a 12-5 mark in Champaign.
The Nittany Lions were ultimately no match for the Spartans in their most recent game, as they were outshot from the field, 43.9 percent to 38.5 percent, and were dominated in the rebounding battle, 45-26, en route to the 16-point loss. Brandon Taylor was stellar in spite of defeat, scoring 18 points, while knocking down all six of his free-throw attempts. D.J. Newbill was also impressive with 17 points, while Donovon Jack made his mark on the defensive end of the floor with five blocks.
PSU is typically a much more effective offensive squad, as it shoots 47.1 percent from the floor for just shy of 80 points per contest. It also helps its cause with 7.4 3-pointers per game and by living in the green with its rebounding (+1.6) and turnover (+0.6) margins. Newbill leads the way with 18.8 ppg, doing so with strong percentages from the field (.511), 3-point range (.434) and the free-throw line (.727). Tim Frazier (17.4 ppg) is also a great scorer and ranks fourth in the nation with 7.3 apg. Ross Travis (11.4 ppg) and Taylor (11.3 ppg) round out the balanced effort.
In a game that consisted of 17 ties and 12 lead changes, Illinois took the final advantage of the game on a Tracy Abrams jumper with 1:43 left in overtime as it downed the Hoosiers to get off to a 1-0 start in the league. Despite shooing just 2-of-17 from 3-point range, it shot a solid 44.9 percent overall and committed just 10 turnovers on the afternoon. Rayvonte Rice paced the effort, tying a career high with 29 points, while adding eight rebounds and three steals for good measure. Abrams shot 8-of-12 from the field for 17 points, while Joseph Bertrand chipped in 13 points and seven boards.
On the season, the Illini boast a solid offensive attack, shooting 44.5 percent from the field for 72.1 ppg, but their true strength comes on the defensive end of the floor, where they allow just 62.0 ppg on 40.2 percent field goal shooting. Rice has established himself as an elite scoring option, pouring in 19.0 ppg on 49 percent from the field, and with 5.7 rpg, he's one of four players to haul in at least five boards per contest. Abrams (13.0 ppg), Bertrand (11.0 ppg), Jon Ekey (8.2 ppg) and Nnanna Egwu (8.0 ppg) round out a lineup that has started every game together.
While PSU's performance against an elite MSU squad earlier in the week wasn't indicative of its season success, it has nonetheless come up small against top-level competition a few times this season, which Illinois certainly qualifies as in Champaign. Figure for the Illini's balanced attack to get the best of the Nittany Lions in this one.
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