CHAMPAIGN — Lamar Stevens is no easy match-up for opposing teams.
The Penn State junior is an imposing 6-foot-8, 230-pound wing who can get to the rim with ease. When a defense lets up, Stevens attacks. Over and over again.
On Saturday, Stevens took advantage of an Illini team that couldn't bring the energy early and scored a game-high 25 points in Penn State's 83-76 win over the Illini at the State Farm Center. It's the fifth consecutive win for Penn State over Illinois.
“This is a great example of what happens in Big Ten basketball when you show up flat and not ready to play," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "Nothing against Penn State, but we were really flat. They played much harder than we did. In every facet."
On Friday, Underwood said the game would be a "rock fight," knowing Penn State was much better than its spot at the bottom of the conference standings. The Illini couldn't stop the onslaught.
Also for Penn State, Mike Watkins had 10 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks from the post.
“They play really hard," Underwood said of Stevens and Watkins. "They have a lot of dog in them. That’s the biggest problem. They’re unrelenting."
The biggest of the five blocks from Watkins came with 1:34 left in the game. Penn State (11-16, 4-12) was clinging to a four-point lead, 70-66, after the Illini (10-17, 6-10) whittled away at what was once a 15-point deficit.
Illinois had just came up with a defensive stop after Rasir Bolton missed a heavily contested pull-up. Suddenly, the Illini could get back within one possession.
Andres Feliz, who weathered the physical style of Penn State all day and scored 17 points, drove through the lane hoping to pin the fifth foul on Watkins. Instead, there was no whistle and the shot didn't hit the rim. The Nittany Lions scored the next seven points to ice the game.
It was Illinois' last hope to overcome an otherwise dull offensive performance, shooting 26-of-66 (39.4 percent) from the field, 6-of-20 (30 percent) from 3-point land, and 18-of-29 (64.3 percent) from the free-throw line while going 9-of-18 on layups and dunks.
Despite the lackluster first half on defense, Illinois got to Penn State a bit more in the second half. The Nittany Lions had 12 of their 17 turnovers in the second half.
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It's the second consecutive loss for the Illini after winning four straight games. With four regular season games left, the Illini aren't ready to pitch out the last two weeks of the season.
“Sometimes you play hard and the score doesn’t come out the way you want, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up," Feliz said. "You have to keep working hard."
Every time the Illini closed the gap and got within six points in the second half, Penn State swung back with an answer. Illinois got within six points, 50-44, with 12:32 left in the game after an Ayo Dosunmu 3-pointer from the top of the arc.
Suddenly a State Farm Center crowd had reason to stand and cheer on a day the team honored the 1989 Flyin' Illini team.
But Penn State hit back with a layup from Stevens, and a 3-pointer from Myles Dread ended that run to re-extend the lead to 11 point.
“We were able to answer some of their runs. I thought that was the difference," Penn State coach Pat Chambers said.
Illinois never got closer than four points the rest of the game.
“We were fighting but sometimes the other team makes plays when we've got to close," Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who had 16 points, said. "We scored, Ayo got a dunk (as a part of a 10-0 Illinois run to get within five), and after that they made the layup. Once you make the plays like that, you can't let them score. You have to get another stop. You have to get like four stops in a row, but they scored on a layup and that really kills you. They kept making plays."
Things were falling apart for Illinois with 9:53 left in the game. Bezhanishvili was called for an offensive foul while setting a screen that had Underwood livid, throwing his jacket and fishing for a technical foul. It wasn't there — yet. Stevens hit a mid-range shot on the other end, and Underwood booted the scorer's table and was finally called for a technical.
Two possessions later, Penn State's John Harrar elbowed Feliz in the head, and Feliz was called for a blocking foul. Harrar hit both free throws before Illinois went on a 10-0 run.
“I was going to fight," Underwood said. "I was going to try to create some emotion and some energy. I should have done it earlier."