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Penn State Basketball 2008-2009

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Penn State upsets Illinois with historic defensive performance


Penn State's been a member of the Big Ten since 1990. Wednesday night in Champaign, the Nittany Lions' basketball team allowed the fewest points in the program's 19-year affiliation with the conference.
Illinois might have served up an ugly duckling in Assembly Hall, but PSU coach Ed DeChellis will view his team's 38-33 win over the Illini as a beautiful swan. In one of the great ironies of sports, Penn State's thoroughly unwatchable win--about as enjoyable as a root canal procedure--just might enable the Nittany Nation to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001.
The Division I men's basketball committee rewards outcomes more than style points, so when Selection Sunday arrives in three and a half weeks, Penn State now has a really good chance of putting the "happy" back in Happy Valley. This road win, coupled with the coup at Michigan State plus a home win against Purdue, gives PSU wins against the top three teams in the Big Ten. That fact alone will carry a lot of weight if the Lions can finish at 10-8 in the conference and win their first-round Big Ten Tournament game.

Yes, it sounds so counter-intuitive to say this, but after a 38-point performance against Illinois is brighter than ever. How can that be? Very simple--the Lions compensated for their utter lack of offensive production by playing their best defensive game in... well... at least 19 years (if not many more).

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When Illinois scored just 36 points in a late-January loss against Minnesota, it defied the laws of basketball to suggest that Bruce Weber's bunch could produce a second clunker on the court. Therefore, Penn State deserves a great deal of credit for finding a way to make lightning strike twice in the same place. When Illinois lost in Minneapolis back on Jan. 29, the Illini went 15-of-51 from the field. On this night, in a much more comfortable setting, a team that carried a 9-4 league record into battle virtually repeated its Gopher face-plant against Penn State. Illinois shot 15-of-50 in this game, and just as instructively, the home team couldn't even get to the free throw line on one occasion. That's right--Illinois, blessed with length, strength and power at a number of positions, particularly in the backcourt, could never earn even one pair of foul shots. That's a testament to the totality and toughness of Penn State's defensive performance.
A final detail helps put the Lions' gritty and gutsy win into proper perspective: As poorly as Illinois did indeed perform on offense, the Illini nevertheless held a 29-20 lead with 10:21 left in regulation. It's one thing to hold an opponent to 33 points. It's quite another matter to be able to hold an opponent to 4 points in a game's final 10 minutes. That's what Penn State did, and it was only because of courageous crunch-time defense that the Lions--anemic on offense in their own right--were able to somehow prevail in a brick-fest of considerable proportions. Penn State didn't just play fantastic defense; the Lions did so on the road, in the face of an appreciable deficit, and down the stretch run of this crucial contest.
Go ahead, make a bunch of jokes or dismissive comments about the aesthetic value or raw quality of this 38-33 win for Penn State. The Nittany Lions will treat it as the most beautiful win of their season, and well they should. After all, this victory just might get them into the Big Dance for the first time in eight years. Wins that significant are hard to come by.
The heroes of Happy Valley aren't yet a lock for a spot in the field of 65. After the prettiest "ugly win" imaginable, however, the Nittany Lions just passed several bubble teams and made a little bit of history along the way.
Not too bad for a night's work, final score be damned.


By Matt Zemek
BigTen-fans.com Staff Writer



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