CHAMPAIGN – Penn State and Illinois combined for a brutal 52 fouls Thursday night. And 27 turnovers.
All of that was just fine with Illini coach John Groce, who watched his team win a defensive slugging match, 64-59, for the team's fifth straight win in a run that's revived its once-fading NCAA tournament hopes.
The Nittany Lions have lost 14 straight, but you wouldn't know it to watch them Thursday at Illinois (20-8, 7-7 Big Ten), Groce said.
"They just wouldn't go away. They kept biting," he said. "They made some big 3s late, kind of closed the gap. They fought. I loved their attitude, their disposition, their passion."
For a Nittany Lions (8-18, 0-14) team that hasn't won since late December, even a close loss was just another loss. And a frustrating one at that.
"The fouls ruined the flow of the game. They shot 36 free throws; you have to understand how many fouls that is," Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said moments before abruptly ending his brief postgame news conference and walking out. "It's too many fouls."
Those 36 free-throw attempts were the difference. Illinois shot just 64 percent from the line, but that piled up 23 points.
With Penn State forced to foul late, it was free throws that finally finished the game for Illinois.
Jermaine Marshall's 3-pointer brought Penn State within 62-59 with 5 seconds left. D.J. Richardson then sank a pair of free throws that sealed the win. Richardson finished with a team-high 18 points and was 8 of 9 from the free-throw line.
Marshall led the Nittany Lions with 20 points, and Sasa Borovnjak finished with 17 points and six rebounds. Travis Ross and Kevin Montminy fouled out late.
Illinois' hot streak included wins over No. 1 Indiana and then-No. 18 Minnesota, the kind of wins that didn't look possible a few weeks ago when the Illini were locked in a midseason slump.
On Thursday, every Penn State rally – often accompanied by a cold stretch from Illinois – threatened to undo much of the good of those wins.
Illinois and Penn State have a history of ugly basketball – the Nittany Lions won a 38-33 barn-burner in Champaign in 2009 – and of playing on nights when the weather makes many fans think twice. The 2011 game in Champaign was played in front of just more than 3,000 of the Illini's closest friends.
Thursday, they combined the two. With snow coming down outside, just under 7,800 fans drifted into the 16,450-seat Assembly Hall. And the teams spent the first 20 minutes finding ways not to score.
Penn State was shooting 44.4 percent at the half, but the Nittany Lions had taken only 18 shots. Illinois had four 3-pointers but was just 8 of 22 from the field.
Brandon Paul, Illinois' leading scorer this season, entered the game needing a single point to become the 10th player in Illini history to score 1,500 in his career. So he opened the game 0 of 4 from the field and 0 of 2 at the free-throw line. His first 3-point attempt missed well to the right of the basket, the backboard and the lane.
The senior finally passed 1,500, but it took him more than 16 minutes to do it. He hit a 3-pointer with 3:21 left in the half to put Illinois up 25-20. Paul finished with 16 points — and he gave Illinois a spark on defense, Groce said.
"I thought Brandon Paul, two back-to-back games now, was dynamite defensively with his effort and his energy and the plays he made," Groce said.
Paul said he was frustrated on offense, particularly by his 3-of-8 performance from the free-throw line.
"It's always frustrating when you're a scorer and you can't get it in the basket," he said. "Coach kept saying, 'Make the next play, it's over, you can't get it back.'"
The 13-game losing streak Penn State brought to Champaign included a four-game run of "almost, but not quite." The Nittany Lions came close in each of those last four losses, to Purdue — which Penn State led at the half — Nebraska, Iowa and, Sunday, No. 4 Michigan.
On Thursday, though, Penn State showed a little of why they all ended in losses.
Down 29-20 at the end of a brutal first half, the Nittany Lions went on a 10-2 run to open the second. Eight of those points came from Marshall, the last of them on a 3-pointer with 15:40 to play that pulled Penn State to within 31-30.
Then, with Illinois unable to find the bucket, Penn State coughed up the ball on back-to-back possessions, wasting two chances to pull ahead. Paul made them pay, draining a 3-pointer for a 34-40 lead with 14:04 to play.
Penn State turned the ball over 16 times in all.
"I thought we played pretty good defense," Chambers said. "(Illinois is) a high-scoring, high-powered team with really good guards, and we played big men. Richardson and Paul, they are terrific. We did our best to try to slow those guys down."
Groce said he told Chambers after the game that the Nittany Lions have greatly improved the past few games.
"I give them a lot of credit. I'm not going to sit up here and say we were awful – I think we made some mistakes we've got to clean up – but they had a lot to do with it," Groce said. "They fought, they battled, they fouled all the way to the end."
Illinois now heads to No. 7 Michigan on Sunday before coming home to face Nebraska next week. Penn State gets a break before trying again for its first conference win Wednesday at home against the Wolverines.