To be clear, this is not the end of Penn State B-Ball. On the contrary, it may be just the beginning as anything goes when the gloves come off in March. That said, the end of their run in Happy Valley could not have been scripted any better for our two seniors, Deivis Zemgulis and Josh Reaves, on their last hurrah inside the Bryce Jordan Center, as the Nittany Lions pulled away in the second half to defeat Illinois 72-56. And what a hurrah it was as they both punctuated the regular season with back-to-back daggers at the end that got the stands rocking.
First, it was Reaves, who broke free with under a minute to go and effectively slammed the door shut on Illinois with one of his patented thunder dunks. After a long pause and standing ovation for Mr. Electric, who went out in style by scoring a career-high 26 points and knocking down 6 three-pointers, the seldom-used Zemgulis took the floor for the final seconds. From nearly half-court, he made a shot we all thought was impossible. He threw up the ball and we all watched as it swished through the net as time finally expired. Needless to say, the home crowd erupted and SportsCenter had its feel-good story of the day.
Penn State went into halftime down one, 32-31, but outscored the Illini 41-24 in the second half. Reaves snagged 11 rebounds to go along with his scoring onslaught and sophomore Jamari Wheeler had a career-high nine assists. Lamar Stevens put in a workmanlike 16 points, along with six rebounds, which moved him into the Top-5 list of all-time scorers. But this day was for our seniors and they both went out with a bang! The season is far from over but the lights inside the BJC have dimmed for the time being.
The victory over the Fighting Illini, combined with Indiana’s win over Rutgers earlier in the day, secured that coveted first-round bye in this week’s Big Ten Tournament at the famed United Center in Chi-Town. That’s nothing short of incredible considering where we were a month ago. The Nittany Lions are slated to face a Minnesota squad that escaped their own home floor with a pin-point win way back on January 19th. Tip-off is Thursday, March 14th, at 7 p.m. and will be live on BTN. Fair warning to the Golden Gophers, this is NOT the same Penn State basketball team that left with their heads down in January. This is a team that has found their leadership, found their shot and found a way to turn all those close losses into wins over the past month. Winless is nothing but a distant memory as the red hot Nittany Lions ROAR into the Windy City with redemption and revenge on their minds.