Loss kills momentum gained in upset win over Ohio State.
The groan from the Midwest made it all the way over the Nittany Mountains. One game and nine days after upsetting league favorite Ohio State to provide a jolt to a program needing some electricity, No. 22 Illinois took a step backward in a 54-52 loss to Penn State here Thursday night. After coming to town alone in first place in the Big Ten Conference standings, the Illini headed home as just another entry in a long list of upsets in the league after losing to a team tied for last in the Big Ten race. "It's really disappointing, especially after you get some momentum after beating Ohio State,'' said Illini coach Bruce Weber. "I was hoping we'd come out and play sharp. "We didn't play well. I didn't coach well. Too many guys didn't play well. You can deal with one or two. You had the time off. You hoped it was a positive thing. I said I'd know tonight if it was good or bad. We weren't very sharp.'' With 4.2 seconds left, Illini guard Sam Maniscalco, who didn't play in the previous three games because of ankle pain, drove to the basket on the Illini's final play, but his shot was blocked into Weber's hands as time expired. The Illini fell to 15-4 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten, dropping out of first place. Illinois hosts Wisconsin Sunday (1 p.m., BTN). "I gave them a goal of not losing two in a row in the league,'' Weber said. "We have to play better against Wisconsin. "I thought we'd come down to Earth (against Penn State). It's a road game. You've got to play well.'' If Illinois wanted to provide evidence there was a corner turned in the win against Ohio State, the Illini failed to convince anybody after losing for the fourth time in the last five games at Penn State. Illini guard Brandon Paul hit a 3-pointer to force a 52-52 tie with 39.1 seconds left, but Penn State's Tim Frazier scored on a floater on the following possession with 8.3 seconds remaining for what proved to be the game winner. The Illini wanted to inbound the ball to Maniscalco, then get it back to Paul for a shot at tying or winning it on the final possession. "It was set up for me to get the Sam the ball,'' Paul said. "It was kind of scrambled in the huddle, trying to figure it out. There were a lot of communication problems. It didn't work out. "I'd rather step off and get the ball, make a play. It didn't happen that way.'' On a snowy night when the crowd was less than half of the 6,945 tickets sold despite promotions for free tickets to students and dollar hot dogs, the Illini came to Penn State attempting to avoid a bad loss. If there's a road game the Illini couldn't explain away, it's this one. "I don't like to blame it on (the layoff),'' Paul said. "Obviously, it's a tough loss.'' Illinois took a 17-9 lead and appeared poised to break it open early in the first half, but Penn State clawed back to within 17-15. Moments later, a contact technical called on Illini guard Joe Bertrand for an inadvertant elbow allowed Penn State to cash in on a five-point possession and a 20-19 lead. The Illini trailed 35-26 early in the second half. Paul scored 20 points to lead Illinois. Center Meyers Leonard had 15 before fouling out. Cameron Woodyard had 17 points and Frazier scored 12 for Penn State (10-10, 2-5). The Nittany Lions played without Billy Oliver, the forward whose 21 points on 7 of 11 shooting from the 3-point line earlier this month led the Nittany Lions to a 20-point victory over Purdue. That blowout win was Penn State's only victory in Big Ten play in its first six games. Oliver didn't dress because of an illness, and he was scheduled for more tests on Friday. With freshman Trey Lewis also out with a back injury, the Nittany Lions were without two of their top five scorers. John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie. Illinois report card Front court -- C- Center Meyers Leonard finished with a quiet 15 points and managed just four rebounds. The Illini were expecting more from the big man. Back court -- D Paul made some shots, but point guard Tracy Abrams and wing Joe Bertrand struggled on the road. Bench -- D Sam Maniscalco logged 27 minutes in his first game back but couldn't get it going after a three-game absence. His timing was off. Forward Tyler Griffey showed some life off the bench. Overall -- D It's not easy on the road in the Big Ten, but this was one the Illini wanted to get. If the Illini stole one against Ohio State, they gave it back here in Happy Valley.