UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- At least for a few games, Penn State was executing in the late stages of the second half and making the type of plays coach Patrick Chambers has always said are the difference between winning and losing. This was evident in the Nittany Lions' three-game winning streak, in which Penn State won games by 4, 1 and 11 points.
In a league filled with as much parity as this year's version of the Big Ten, every possession matters. And when the game is low-scoring and close, as many often are in this league, those characteristics are heightened.
Penn State found this out again Sunday, losing to Illinois, 60-55, at Bryce Jordan Center. From just after the 10-minute mark to the one-minute mark, the Nittany Lions (12-12, 3-8) scored only one point.
"They made the necessary plays to win and we didn't," Chambers said.
With 9:44 left, Penn State took a 52-49 lead on a jump shot from guard D.J. Newbill. As he has been, aside from the first couple Big Ten games, Newbill was on point. He had 14 points at that time and had scored on a variety of jump shots and drives to the basket. Point guard Tim Frazier had just broken the school's all-time assist record.
It seemed Penn State was primed for its fourth Big Ten win in its past five games, particularly against an Illinois team that was in a tailspin and, unlike Penn State, growing far too accustomed to losing games like these.
Illinois (14-10, 3-8) began to pack in its defense a little tighter, though. It forced Penn State to the perimeter. Rather than attack, the Nittany Lions started taking more jump shots, and none of them were falling.
Over the final nine minutes, Penn State missed nine shots and made just one. It also missed 2 of 3 free throws. Chambers wanted to see his team attempt more drives to the basket or get the ball down low to Donovon Jack or Jordan Dickerson, but he also lamented the misses of what were usually good shots.
"Other than some turnovers around the eight-minute timeout, we have to knock down some shots," he said. "You're home so you think you're going to hit a couple."
That's about all Illinois could do. The Illini had only three field goals in the final nine minutes, but they were enough -- particularly a corner 3-pointer from Kendrick Nunn that pushed the Illini's lead to four with 22 seconds left.
Penn State, a week ago on one of its highest Big Ten highs in recent years, has the familiar feeling of losing a winnable game. Afterward, neither Chambers nor Frazier nor Newbill had much to say. They've been in this situation several times. It's now about moving on from it in the most productive way possible in the stretch run of their Big Ten schedule.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.