Tim Frazier's short runner with eight seconds left gave Penn State a 54-52 lead over No. 22 Illinois at the Jordan Center Thursday night. And Jermaine Marshall's block of a Sam Maniscalco shot at the other end preserved the upset.
As big as those two plays were, though, he Nittany Lions' victory -- which snapped a three-game skid and evened their season mark at 10-10 (2-5 Big Ten) -- was less about those two clutch efforts and more about overall ruggedness.
They see now they can beat a good team, PSU coach Pat Chambers said. They believe and have faith in what Penn State basketball is all about, and that's rebounding and competing for 40 minutes.
Undermanned (two regulars were out with injuries) and undersized (State had nobody who came close to measuring up to 7-foot-1 Illini center Meyers Leonard), the Lions compensated -- as usual -- by making it a rough and tumble affair.
With starting forward Billy Oliver sideline due to an undisclosed physical problem, Chambers used four guards and one of two centers -- 6-8 Jon Graham or 6-9 Sasa Borovnjak -- most of the game.
Meyers scored 15 points on 6 of 12 shooting but had to work for everything he got. When an Illinois beat writer suggested the big man got a lot of shots, Illini coach Bruce Weber responded, Probably could have gotten it to him more, to be honest with you.
Then Weber griped about the officiating.
They were very physical with him, he said. I thought there should be more fouls called, but that's my opinion.
Weber is no dummy. When officials call tight games -- as happened as more than 50 fouls were called when the Lions played Minnesota at the BJC Sunday -- PSU is in trouble. State lost that game 80-66 as the much bigger Gophers made a procession to the free-throw line.
This game was different. There were a total of 31 fouls called. Physical play was allowed both ways. And that worked against Leonard, who is more of a finesse big man.
That was the goal, to make him uncomfortable and to catch the ball in areas where he didn't want to catch, Chambers said.
Thrown off his game, Leonard picked up two late fouls that proved to be critical. The first was when he tried to switch out on Lion guard Matt Glover with 3:25 left. The second -- and his fifth overall -- happened when he ran into Graham after Graham grabbed a rebound with 51 seconds left.
Penn State led 52-49 at the time, and after Graham missed the front end of a one-and-one, Illini guard Brandon Paul tied it with a long 3-pointer with 40 seconds showing. It was tied 52-52.
Senior Cammeron Woodyard was having a big game for State, having made 6 of 10 shots for 17 points. But there was no doubt who was getting the ball in the clutch.
Even Illinois knew.
Following a timeout, Penn State tried to run a play for the super quick Frazier, but the Illini anticipated it and jumped out on him. Chambers called another timeout, clearly angry that Frazier did not bolt backdoor when the rangy Paul cheated out on him.
This time, Chambers wanted a simple high screen for Frazier. If someone switched, Frazier would look for Woodyard on the wing. If they did not switch, Frazier would take it into the lane to try to score himself.
The wildcard was that Meyers, his team's best shot-blocker, had fouled out.
I like my chances against a backup center, Chambers said.
Frazier zipped toward the lane and flicked in the running jumper for a 54-52 lead with eight seconds and change left. The backup center in question, 6-11 Nnanna Egwu, was too slow to respond.
He earned the right to make that shot and he earned the right to take that shot, Chambers said, noting Frazier's work ethic in practice and emergence as a team leader.
The five man stayed in the paint and I was able to get deep enough to get the floater, Frazier added.
Frazier's clutch shot.
Illinois got the ball past midcourt and called timeout with less than five seconds remaining. The Illini inbounded to Maniscalco, who missed the previous three games with an ankle injury and had not attempted a shot in this game.
He ambled down the lane and -- almost without jumping -- tried to score on a drive. Marshall easily swatted the shot and Woodyard grabbed it to ice the win.
What a great game, Chambers said.
And nobody could blame him.
Asked directly if Oliver missed the game due to concussion problems, Chambers said he did not know. Oliver missed most of his first two seasons on campus due to concussion-related issues.
Freshman guard Trey Lewis missed his second straight game with a lower back injury.
Woodyard led Penn State with 17. Frazier has a dozen and nine assists.
Marshall blocked three shots in the game, the second time this season he has done so.
Illinois fell to 14-4 and 4-2. Paul led the Illini with 20.
Thursday marked the first time in program history PSU wore alternate gray uniforms.
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