Game Notes: Illinois at Penn State
Weird weather, dead birds, and now my Nittany Lions make Slamonline twice in one day? Strange days, indeed.
by Farmer Jones / @thefarmerjones
The postgame Twitter debate Tuesday night centered on whether it was bad form for the Penn State student section to rush the court. This is the second time in four nights that Penn State fans have found reason to crowd onto the floor at the Bryce Jordan Center. The first came after beating No. 18 Michigan State on Saturday. On Tuesday, it was No. 16 Illinois.
I think Rick Reilly wrote a column a couple of years ago proposing rules for when fans should be allowed to rush the court. I vaguely remember it, and it probably wasn’t a bad idea in theory, but then Rick Reilly hasn’t been worth a sh*t in 10 years or so, and anyway I’m guessing he doesn’t know anything about my school’s basketball team.
Me, I’m glad they rushed the court. This is Penn State. We are not a basketball school. We most likely never will be. That’s OK. Our football program is a once and future national power (we’re just, um, napping at the moment.) Our volleyball team makes the UConn women’s hoop squad look like underachievers. We’re dominant in stuff like fencing and wrestling, too. Nobody’s great at everything. We’re not usually very good at basketball. For us, rushing the court after beating a Big Ten contender should be mandatory.
As a hoop fan, and a former SLAM Ed., this obviously bums me out. But I’m also a realist. I understand that Penn State isn’t supposed to be good at basketball. I believe that fans and alumni who think otherwise are a little bit delusional — and a lot of these people are friends of mine. As far as winning goes, it’s arguably the toughest major-conference job in America: We’re in the middle of nowhere, football overshadows everything, there’s no natural recruiting base, and the nearest urban areas are dominated by more historically successful programs. Of course, those low expectations mean a coach like Ed DeChellis, an alum, cancer survivor and all around decent guy, can last eight seasons despite being 24 games below .500.
A lot of Penn State fans think DeChellis will be gone at season’s end, and they might be right. He hasn’t led this program to an NCAA Tournament berth, even though they had a Sweet 16-caliber squad two years ago; an embarrassingly weak non-conference schedule kept them from getting a bid, and they went on and won the NIT instead. The more brain-dead among my fellow alums think DeChellis should be fired, like, right now, but that’s only because they think he should’ve been fired last year, or three years ago, or that he never should’ve been hired in the first place.
I should say, though, that nobody’s asking for him to be fired today.
I should also point out, as this jerk* did earlier today, that just three short weeks ago, Penn State lost—at home, by double-digits—to Maine. I took my 6-year-old son to the game, quite possibly ruining college basketball for him forever. The team I watched beat MSU the other night, and the one I saw against Illinois, bears literally no resemblance to the team that lost to Maine. I mean, not literally. But literally.**
Penn State has four senior starters, all of whom have been getting regular minutes since their freshman year, and yet all four of them had not scored in double digits in the same game — ever — until Saturday. But on those occasions when Talor Battle, Jeff Brooks, David Jackson and Andrew Jones all do play well on the same night, the Nittany Lions actually are pretty good. Maybe — maybe — even NCAA Tournament good. It just hasn’t happened often enough to make anyone think it will happen often enough the rest of this season to matter. But two games in a row is something. Two games in a row is a start.
Tuesday night was all about a good start, with Penn State going up 11-2 and 25-13 at points in the first half. My squad wasn’t shooting well, but they were defending and rebounding and hustling. Mike Tisdale, he of the perma-hunch and silently very, very effective game, kept Illinois close with a near first-half double-double. All our seniors were playing well, and gangly freshman back-up forward Billy Oliver had two first-half blocks, which seemed as sure a sign of the apocalypse as anything in the news this month. But that 12-point lead dissolved thanks to a 12-0 Illinois run to end the half. At the break, it was 25-all.
First-half highlight: With about seven minutes left, Battle picked up a lose ball off a deflection and went in for the dunk. Understand, my man is listed at 6-0, but he’s probably 5-11 with kicks on. He only ever dunks on the break. I teased him last summer about how he all his dunks were banquet-waiter style, where he’d hold the ball up with his right hand and only bring his left over at the last second for the world’s least-intimidating two-hander. This year, he’s been throwing down legitimate dunks.
I’m glad I could help.
At halftime, my dude @Matt_Fortuna pointed out that the last 10 meetings between these two teams have been decided by a total of 24 points. I didn’t look it up to confirm that it’s true, but it sound right. And it’s nuts. One of those games came two years ago, a 38-33 Penn State win. (Yes, that was the final score. Sorry, basketball.)
The Illini took their first lead of the game 90 seconds into the second half, and they pushed it to three a couple of minutes later. This was the point where anyone who pays attention to Penn State hoops figured the home team would go into an eight-minute drought and end up losing by 12. But the home team didn’t do that. The home team stuck around. The Nittany Lions tied the game a moment later when the gangly Mr. Oliver bounced in a three, and regained the lead when Battle converted a steal into a layup, then followed it with a three ball from the corner.
Here’s what’s hard to explain about Talor Battle: He is almost certainly the best player in Penn State history. He broke the school record for minutes played last night — with at least 14 games to go in his senior year — and he’s on pace to end as our all-time leading scorer. He was the only player in the nation last season to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists and steals. As stated, we’re a football school, but I can tell you a lot of kids will remember him as the favorite athlete of their four years here. That’s saying something.
The fact that Battle won’t lead the team in every category this season is a testament to that fact that his teammates are stepping up. Brooks and Jones are boarding. Sophomore guard Tim Frazier is diming at an unexpected rate. But Battle is still that dude, arguably the most slept-on player in the country, and inarguably (in my totally subjective opinion) the player most deserving of a shot at the NCAA tournament.
It stayed that way last night. Battle went for 17 of his game-high 26 in the second half, the craziest three of which came with 12 minutes left, when he got a kick-out with the shot clock running down. He was standing on the outer edge of the chipmunk head logo at center court, about 38 feet from the basket. Here, look:
He had no choice but to pull. He did. Wet.
I’ve been watching this kid for 3 1/2 years, and I have to tell you, I’m not the least bit surprised it went in. I might’ve been more surprised if it hadn’t.
The game stayed close the rest of the way, and with the Nittany Lions up four with about four minutes left, the question started circulating on press row: When was the last time Penn State beat ranked teams in back-to-back games? The answer: 1954. The year they made their only trip to the Final Four.
This team won’t make the Final Four, and probably still won’t make the Big Dance. And that’s OK. I mean, it would suck, especially for Battle, who has carried an absurd load for four seasons and has little tangible to show for it. But they’ve got a shot thanks to wins like this. On Tuesday night, he helped win the game with a classic Iverson “assist,” taking the ball on the last Penn State possession with the game tied at 55, driving to his left and throwing it up off the glass, which is exactly what everyone in the gym knew he’d do. And the help came, Tisdale (who finished with 16, 14 and 3 blocks) picking the final moment of the game to finally give us a break. He left his man, Andrew Jones, and Jones caught the miss and jammed it in for the decisive points with :00.7 left. Illinois’ in-bound pass was deflected at the end. Ball game.
Battle, afterward, explained what happened on the final play: “Well, Drew can’t hear. He kept coming and trying to screen for me. I kept saying, ‘Get away, Drew, get away.’”
Yes, that’s how we do it up here in Happy Valley. We’re 3-2 in the Big Ten. Our next two games are on the road, at No. 2 Ohio State and No. 8 Purdue. We’ll try to enjoy it while we can.
*I don’t know Jon Jaques, and I don’t actually think he’s a jerk. His assessment of my program is pretty on point. I’m just mad he posted something about Penn State before I did. The jerk.
**Not actually literally.