"We could've easily let that one slip away but we made the necessary plays down the stretch to find success and I'm really proud of them," head coach Patrick Chambers said.
Although entering Saturday afternoon's matchup on a three-game skid, the Nittany Lions found a way to reignite the energy from the sound of the first whistle, earning Penn State's fourth January victory for the first time in the Chambers era.
"That's the first time we've done that in my six years here," Chambers said. "To be able to get to 4-5 [in the Big Ten] and creep up the standings a little bit is a credit to these kids and the upperclassmen that kept competing."
Firsts seem to be a little bit of a theme for the Nittany Lions on Coaches vs. Cancer day as more than 10,000 filled the Bryce Jordan Center, including former players in honor of alumni day.
In the first half, Penn State shot out to the early advantage as veteran leaders Shep Garner and Payton Banks came alive from the 3-point line, knocking down a trio of triples. Penn State cruised to halftime, with a last-second bucket from freshman Tony Carr bolstering the advantage to as many as 20 points, 45-25.
Heading into the locker room, Penn State was clicking, shooting 60 percent from the field to match its best first half since the Michigan State win at the Palestra in early January.
As Chambers and his Nittany Lions have noted all season though, the offensive momentum, the lead and the shooting clip aren't exactly the focus, but rather, it's what's happening defensively that leads to the offensive success.
In the locker room at halftime though, the message was keeping the consistency alive, playing out the full 40 minutes.
"We did it in non-conference when it was coming down the stretch at St. Johns, Wright State, and Morgan State," Chambers said. "I feel like we got to that goal, and in the Big Ten, it's a whole other animal."
True to his note, it was Illinois that came out in the second half looking like a whole other animal.
"Coach [Chambers] was telling us they're one of the toughest teams in the league, so just like us, we usually have a lot of fight, and we knew they were going to try to make a run," Banks said.
With Penn State leading by as many as 21 five minutes into the second half, Illinois adjustments led to a 28-10 run that narrowed the Nittany Lion advantage to as few as three.
Banks looked to double the lead with his fourth 3-pointer of the day, but Illinois answered right back with another triple to trim the gap back to three, 65-62 with less than two minutes to play in the game.
Next it was Garner who went 4-for-4 from the free throw line, in the final few minutes of play, drawing the Illinois charge to send him to the charity stripe to keep Penn State ahead by five with eight seconds to play, 69-64.
"Shep really set the tone to make his free throws down the stretch there, that shows where his head is right now," Chambers said. "I think we see an emerging leader. He's definitely back."
Garner led the team with 18 points, including four 3-pointers. Although quieter than usual across the last few games, Garner showed glimpses of settling back into a rhythm with three triples in Tuesday's trip to Wisconsin.
That's no reason to be concerned for Garner though, who simply hit the gym and continued to listen to his teammates to break free from the slump.
"My teammates always tell me to shoot," Garner said. "They've been telling me to shoot when I'm open, so that just gave me a little bit of confidence coming into the game."
Along with Garner though, Banks finished second on the team with 17 points, shooting 5-for-8 from the field despite being limited to just one three in the second half.
"I think they did a really good job finding me in transition," Banks said. "That's where I like finding a lot of my threes."
Aside from the veteran leadership though, curious case of the Nittany Lion dunks came back to help Penn State in the win.
In each of Penn State's Big Ten wins this season the Nittany Lions have posted at least five dunks, with PSU registering five in the win against the Illini.
For Garner, the dunks are a sign that the energy is back.
"Dunks definitely get me excited, because I'm not the most athletic person," Garner said. "I like to see dunks a lot. That's my thing. I like to give up passes for dunks."
For Chambers though, he would prefer it a little differently."I wish stops and charges and big-time grown-man rebounds that are above the rim, I wish those would get us going instead of dunks," Chambers said. "We need juice, we need energy, we need that fire. Especially when you're going through a grueling 10 minutes."