Illinois rolls with punch, routs Penn State
BY HERB GOULD For Sun-Times Media January 4, 2014 5:53PM
Nnanna Egwu (32) restrains John Johnson after an altercation between Penn State’s D.J. Newbill and Illinois’ Kendrick Nunn. | AP
Updated: February 6, 2014 6:28AM
CHAMPAIGN — Fighting Illini? OK. But Fighting Nittany Lions? Who knew?
Penn State guard D.J. Newbill, who’s second in Big Ten scoring behind Illini guard Rayvonte Rice, literally battled before the Nittany Lions fell 75-55 to Illinois on Saturday.
Even Penn State coach Patrick Chambers expressed surprise that Newbill delivered a shot to the back of Kendrick Nunn’s head. Nunn was starting downcourt after scoring on a drive with 8:38 to play.
‘‘I didn’t see it,’’ Chambers said. ‘‘I don’t know what he did, but he has to keep his composure. We need him on the floor. Give Illinois a lot of credit. They beat us in every facet of the game. But when you’re faced with adversity, you have to continue to battle. We didn’t do that.’’
Both benches erupted, but coaches and referees kept the scrum from escalating beyond a few shoves. Nunn pushed back but didn’t overreact.
‘‘In terms of the skirmish, I don’t know a lot about it,’’ Illini coach John Groce said. ‘‘Stuff happens. We’ll move on and get ourselves ready for Wednesday. It was another dogfight, a really physical game. But, again, I liked our toughness.’’
Illinois (13-2, 2-0) went ahead 54-43 on the ensuing two free throws. It never let Penn State (9-6, 0-2) get back in the game after the incident, which got Newbill ejected.
With the victory, Illinois, which is 26th in the Associated Press poll, stands a good chance of moving into the Top 25. To stay there, the Illini will need to bring their A-game at No. 4 Wisconsin on Wednesday (8 p.m., BTN, 670-AM).
Weathering a sluggish first half, Illinois bounced back nicely in the second half. Rice (15 points) led the four starters who reached double figures. Tracy Abrams was scoreless in the first half but finished with 12 points, five assists and six rebounds. Nnanna Egwu (seven points, eight rebounds, three blocks) was solid in the paint.
All in all, it was a good day for the Illini and their honored guests, the 1989 Flyin’ Illini, who were introduced at halftime. Coach Lou Henson and wife Mary, Kenny Battle, Kendall Gill and the rest of the crew received a warm welcome from 15,390 fans.
‘‘It was a great moment,’’ Rice said of talking with the ’89 players over dinner Friday. ‘‘We’re trying to do the same thing: be tough and together and never give up.’’
There has been a lot of talk about who would win a clash between Illinois’ last two Final Four teams, the ’89 and 2005 squads. Henson didn’t hesitate when asked to weigh in.
‘‘Our ’89 team would win,’’ said Henson, who will be 82 on Friday and is sharp as ever. ‘‘We had three guys they couldn’t guard. They would win the point-guard position hands down, though.’’
If that was a dig at ’89 playmaker Stephen Bardo, who gave an unflattering portrayal of Henson in his recently released book about that Final Four team, Bardo didn’t object.
‘‘That’s no shot; that’s the truth,’’ said Bardo, readily admitting to no contest with ’05 star Deron Williams.