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Freshmen Nunn, Hill lead Illini to 60-55 win over Penn State

Updated: February 9, 2014 8:36PM

Win or lose, it was going to be a turning point for Illinois basketball.

After eight consecutive defeats — the longest losing streak in 40 years for the ­Illini — spanning more than a month, John Groce’s team needed something, anything, to change the course of this brutal Big Ten season.

So Groce made Sunday the day his freshman class came out to play.

Final score: Illinois 60, Penn State 55. Bye-bye, losing streak.

Coincidence? Hardly.

After going with the same starting lineup for 23 games, Groce changed things up in a major way in State College, starting freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill in place of guard Joseph Bertrand and forward Jon Ekey, both seniors.

This development surely was heartily endorsed by a majority of Illini fans. As Groce’s team has struggled to score, been beaten up on the boards and caved late in close game after close game, the rumblings in Illini Nation have grown for longer looks at the young guys.

Before Sunday, Groce’s leash had been very short. Only Simeon’s Nunn was seeing his role slowly expand.

That has all changed now — for good, it would seem.

Nunn (19 points) and Hill (11) gave the Illini their most productive offensive games yet. All five freshmen had their moments. Even seldom-used big man Austin Colbert played important minutes and performed well.

It was the Illini’s first victory since Jan. 4, when they beat the Nittany Lions by 20 in Champaign.

As good as the freshmen were offensively, their defensive efforts mattered even more. The Illini held the Lions (12-12, 3-8) without a point from the 9:44 mark of the second half until just 51 seconds remained. In all that time, mind you, the Illini scored only five points themselves.

But Nunn hit a corner three-pointer with 22 seconds left that allowed Illini Nation to exult and exhale. At last, progress. At this point, even freshmen-led baby steps are most welcome.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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