UNIVERSITY PARK - Rankings and records usually don't mean anything when Penn State plays Illinois because, for some mysterious reason, the Nittany Lions always match up well and give the Illini fits.
With two minutes to go Thursday night, and PSU leading by five, an Illinois broadcaster made a comment about how the Lions were "the 12th-place team in the Big Ten." Illinois came in leading the league and ranked No. 22, but again, all that gets thrown out the window when these teams meet.
"I don't know," PSU point guard Tim Frazier said when asked why. "I guess we play Penn State basketball every time we play Illinois."
Frazier hit a floater in the lane with 8.2 seconds left, and the defense held on at the buzzer to give Penn State a 54-52 upset win before 6,945 fans who braved the snowy weather to show up at the Bryce Jordan Center.
The victory marked the first over a ranked opponent during the Patrick Chambers era at PSU.
"It's confidence, there's no question," Chambers said of the win's impact on his young team. "They see now that they can be a good team. They can believe and have faith in what Penn State basketball is all about."
The Lions (10-10, 2-5 Big Ten) played without starting forward Billy Oliver (sick) and reserve guard Trey Lewis (back) but still managed to pull off the upset. Penn State led by as many as nine early in the second half and maintained control until the Illini (15-4, 4-2) pulled even at 52 on a 3-pointer by Brandon Paul with 39 seconds left.
Chambers called timeout with 34 seconds remaining to set up a play. With nothing materializing on offense and the ball 30 feet away from the bucket, he called his final timeout with 16 seconds left and 13 on the shot clock.
Both times Chambers called a play for Frazier, who came in averaging 18.2 points.
"He's earned the right to make those and take those shots," Chambers said.
The play called for a high screen and roll involving Frazier and Jon Graham. Illinois had hoped to push Frazier to his left, and the PSU guard had the option of dishing out to Cammeron Woodyard or Jermaine Marshall.
The middle of the lane opened up, though, and Frazier put up a 12-foot floater and buried it.
Illinois worked the ball upcourt, and coach Bruce Weber called timeout with 4.5 seconds to go to set up a play. Whatever Weber called, the play that resulted seemed strange as it had guard Sam Maniscalco, who had no points, in position to take the final shot.
Maniscalco took the inbounds pass near midcourt and drove the right side of the lane. His shot was blocked by Marshall, and time expired during the scramble for the loose ball.
"Probably the wrong call, obviously, but I thought Sam did the right thing, got to the basket," Weber said.
Paul kept the Illini in the game by scoring 20 points, including 4-of-9 3-pointers and some clutch ones late.
Even after his go-ahead bucket, Frazier said, "The first thing I think about is not letting Brandon Paul get the ball."
Penn State has won two of the past three meetings against Illinois and also six out of 10.
"Coming into the game you know that it's going to be a dogfight, it's going to be a last-possession game," said Woodyard, who had a game-high 17 points for PSU.
Illinois appeared on the verge of taking control of the game midway through the first half, pulling away from a 9-9 tie with back-to-back 3-pointers and another bucket for a 17-9 lead with 10:59 left in the half.
The Lions stormed right back, however, with an 11-2 run of their own over the next four minutes to take a 20-19 edge. Woodyard sparked the run with a cherry-picking dunk after a turnover and a 3-pointer on the next possession to cut it to 17-15.
The lead changed hands four times late in the half, and Frazier's bucket with 1:22 left gave PSU a 25-23 edge at the break.
"They play hard here," Weber said. "We put on the scouting report, Bryce Jordan, they play at another level."
The Lions surged early in the second half to build the lead to 35-26 and held off every Illini comeback attempt to snap a three-game losing streak.
"When you have confidence, man, these kids can do anything," Chambers said. "And I think these kids have some confidence."
ILLINOIS (15-4): Leonard 6-12 3-5 15, Richardson 2-11 0-0 6, Bertrand 2-6 0-0 4, Paul 5-11 6-6 20, Abrams 0-1 0-0 0, Maniscalco 0-5 0-0 0, Henry 0-0 0-0 0, Egwu 1-1 0-0 2, Griffey 1-2 2-2 5. Totals 17-49 11-13 52.
PENN ST. (10-10): Graham 0-3 1-3 1, Travis 2-4 0-0 4, Glover 3-7 1-2 7, Frazier 4-11 4-4 12, Woodyard 6-10 2-2 17, Marshall 2-8 2-2 7, Colella 0-1 0-0 0, Borovnjak 3-5 0-0 6. Totals 20-49 10-13 54.
Halftime-Penn St. 25-23. 3-Point Goals-Illinois 7-22 (Paul 4-9, Richardson 2-7, Griffey 1-2, Leonard 0-1, Maniscalco 0-3), Penn St. 4-10 (Woodyard 3-4, Marshall 1-3, Colella 0-1, Glover 0-1, Frazier 0-1). Fouled Out-Leonard. Rebounds-Illinois 32 (Bertrand, Paul 6), Penn St. 31 (Glover, Graham 7). Assists-Illinois 14 (Richardson 5), Penn St. 14 (Frazier 9). Total Fouls-Illinois 15, Penn St. 16. Technical-Bertrand. A-6,945.