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Illinois tops Penn State for fifth victory in a row

Illinois' BrandPaul (3)  looks shoot as Penn State's Jermaine Marshall defends during first half an NCAA college basketball game

Illinois' Brandon Paul (3) looks to shoot as Penn State's Jermaine Marshall defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Robert K. O'Daniell) ORG XMIT: ILRO103

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Updated: March 23, 2013 6:42AM

CHAMPAIGN — No style points, no big deal. There are no ugly victories at this time of the year.

Despite looking as sloppy as the blizzard outside, Illinois weathered pesky Penn State 64-59 on Thursday.

‘‘I’m really proud of our guys for grinding it out,’’ coach John Groce said. ‘‘In February, you don’t always look sexy and pretty. We got contributions from a lot of guys.’’

It was the fifth consecutive victory for the Illini (20-8, 7-7 Big Ten), who have done a nice job of clawing their way back to .500 in the toughest conference in the country.

Overcoming some early misfires, Brandon Paul made a three-pointer with 3:18 left in the first half to become the 10th Illinois player to reach the 1,500-point milestone. He can catch Andy Kaufmann (1,533 points) for ninth place, but No. 8 Mark Smith (1,653) seems out of reach.

‘‘I reached a milestone? I had no idea,’’ Paul said. ‘‘I guess it’s cool. I think it’s better that we got the win.’’

Paul finished with 16 points, 13 of them in the second half. He also played determined defense.

‘‘He was lights-out defensively,’’ Groce said. ‘‘He made play after play.’’

D.J. Richardson led the Illini, who were outrebounded 34-25, with 18 points. Jermaine Marshall led the Nittany Lions with 20 points, and Sasa Borovnjak added 17.

If Illinois exhaled a bit against hapless Penn State (8-18, 0-14), it was entitled to. The Illini had looked pretty darn solid in their four previous victories. They’ll need to pack their ‘‘A’’ game for their visit Sunday to No. 7 Michigan, but they have some breathing room in their quest to reach the NCAA tournament.

On a snowy, frozen night, only 7,667 of the 14,356 ticket-buying patrons ventured into Assembly Hall — and the no-shows probably weren’t disappointed. The game wasn’t in the same league with
Illinois’ 38-33 loss to the visiting Nittany Lions on Feb. 18, 2009, even if it seemed that way at times.

The Illini were 23-for-36 from the free-throw line and Penn State 9-for-16 in a game that featured 52 fouls, 31 on the Nittany Lions.

Illinois led 29-20 after a first half in which it shot 36 percent
(8-for-22), including only two baskets in the first nine minutes. The Illini led 22-20 before pulling away as Penn State missed the front ends of three one-and-ones and committed two turnovers on its
final five possessions of the half.

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