CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Over the past several years, Penn State hasn’t made a lot of noise in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions haven’t had a winning record in conference play in nearly eight years and haven’t made an NCAA tournament appearance since 2011.
After a 74-52 win over Illinois on Sunday night, this year appears to be the turning point.
“Patience, everybody needs to have a little patience,” coach Pat Chambers said about his team’s turnaround. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
Shep Garner scored 16 points and Tony Carr had 15 points in the Nittany Lion’s second 20-point conference victory of the season. Penn State and Illinois traded baskets early, but the Nittany Lions pulled away after halftime.
Illinois missed its first nine second-half shots and didn’t score for seven-plus minutes as Penn State went on a 12-0 run to make it 49-36. The Nittany Lions (18-9, 8-6 Big Ten) led by at least nine points the rest of the way.
“I wish we could eliminate halftimes,” coach Brad Underwood said. “We didn’t run anything. One mistake and we just hang our heads and it affects the next play.”
The Illini scored a season-low 16 points, and shot just 27.3 percent from the field, in the second half.
Trent Frazier, Illinois’ leading scorer in conference play, finished with only six points on 2-of-11 shooting. He knocked down two 3-pointers in the first half.
. Carr hit three 3-pointers, grabbed six rebounds and had six assists. Lamar Stevens finished with 11 points, while Mike Watkins and Josh Reaves scored 10 apiece, for Penn State.
Illinois had the lead for more than 15 minutes in the first half, but squandered it late. Carr air balled a 3-pointer from the right wing, but Jamari Wheeler grabbed the offensive rebound and kicked it out to Garner, who nailed a corner 3.
On the ensuing play, Mark Alstork stepped on the baseline while inbounding the ball, giving Penn State possession with 3.7 seconds left. Carr scored a layup before the buzzer to take a one-point lead into the break.
“I was really pleased with our bench,” Chambers said. “Their minutes were huge in that first half. To just keep it where it was, and then to be able to take a one-point lead into halftime was a big swing for us.”
The Nittany Lions shot 54.5 percent from the field, outscored Illinois 34-12 in the paint and won their fourth consecutive game against the Illini. Penn State has won six of its last seven overall.
Leron Black led Illinois (12-14, 2-11) with 18 points.
After finishing three games below .500 last season, the Nittany Lions continued their impressive turnaround this year. Their eight wins in conference play are the most ever under Chambers.
Following a career-high 32-points in a 78-69 loss to Wisconsin on Thursday, Penn State made things tough for Frazier. He has been Illinois’ best player in conference play, and without a strong performance from him the Illini clearly struggled.
Garner’s 16 points moved him up to No. 10 on Penn State’s all-time scoring list. He has 276 points this season and is currently tied with Tom Hovasse at 1,459 career points.
Michael Finke was held out the game with a concussion. Underwood said the 6-foot-10 forward suffered the injury in practice on Saturday and is day-to-day. Finke is Illinois’ third leading scorer and without him on the floor, the Illini definitely lacked in size and shooting. Greg Eboigbodin made his first career start in place of Finke but didn’t score.
Underwood and Chambers wore blue Autism Speaks puzzle piece pins in collaboration with the fifth annual Coaches Powering Forward weekend. The yearly tradition was created by Towson coach Pat Skerry and South Florida assistant coach Tom Herrion, both of whom have sons on the autism spectrum, in 2014.
The Illini will face Indiana on the Wednesday night. Illinois knocked off the Hoosiers on Jan. 24 for its first Big Ten victory of the season.
Penn State returns home to face No. 14 Ohio State on Thursday. The Buckeyes sit atop the Big Ten after a one-point win over No. 3 Purdue last week.