Illinois men’s basketball holds off last-place Penn State 64-59

In the game of basketball, there is not a specific metric to measure the ugliness of a contest. Perhaps the closest statistic to define such an intangible adjective is in the foul column.

In that regard, the 64-59 Illinois victory over Penn State included 52 fouls Thursday night at Assembly Hall might constitute the ugliest game of the season for Illinois.

But Illinois head coach John Groce’s old adage is that his team won’t give away a win, and now Illinois has reached the 20-win threshold on the season during a five-game win streak. It is in large part because of a plus-20 free-throw attempt advantage and a couple timely baskets from Illini senior guards.

Illinois attempted 36 free throws to Penn State’s 16, sinking 23 of them. D.J. Richardson hit four free throws in a row to seal the game in its final moments. Richardson tallied 18 points to lead Illinois, marking the fourth time in the last five games that he has scored at least 18 points.

“It’s not always sexy and pretty in February,” Groce said.

Groce was diplomatic when discussing the foul debacle, but Penn State head coach Pat Chambers addressed it head on in the postgame, clearly frustrated after the fourth opponent in the Nittany Lions’ last six games attempted at least 30 free throws against his team.

“There was a foul every play,” Chambers said. “There was zero flow to the game. I understand there’s going to be fouls, but there was too many fouls.

“We’re not that bad defensively.”

Interspersed among the rampant referee whistles, aghast player reactions at dubious calls and free throws, Illinois actually scored baskets and made plays. Nnanna Egwu forced a steal, grabbed it and went coast-to-coast for a dunk to give Illinois a 45-37 lead with 7:48 to go in the game.

From that point forward, the game flow grinded to a halt for the next five minutes until Penn State pulled to within three points at a score of 52-49 with 2:50 remaining.

Illinois guard Brandon Paul answered with a 3-pointer of his own on the next possession to secure a six-point lead that outlasted the barrage of fouls at the end.

With his 16 points, Paul became only the 10th player in Illinois history to reach the 1,500 career-point mark — a milestone he seemed oblivious to after the game.

“I reached a milestone today?” Paul asked. “Oh, I had no idea. I mean, I guess that’s cool.”

Penn State poked and prodded the Illini all night long through grit and a rebounding effort that bested Illinois. The Nittany Lions dropped their 14th straight game and remain winless in conference play. Groce said his team’s win did not deter his respect for how hard Penn State plays despite its inadequacies.

“I love their attitude, their disposition and their passion,” Groce said. “I told Pat after the game, you could see them getting better. I loved their energy level and passion that they play with, and they’ve done that through adversity.”

Chambers echoed the praise for Groce, unprompted after Illinois reached .500 in conference play with the win.

“I just want to say, John Groce is doing a great job,” Chambers said. “His energy, his fire, his enthusiasm. Illinois is playing with a lot more toughness, and they’re defensive-minded. They’re doing a great job.”

Thomas can be reached at and @ThomasBruch.