Notes: 'Booty ball' sparks another Penn State win

Mar. 9—CHICAGO — Brad Underwood called it "booty ball." Those clearly hard to stop post-ups from Penn State guard Jalen Pickett.

It's a subject matter the Illinois coach has brought up previously this season. Pickett choosing to start his post-ups at the three-point line — or beyond it — and take his time backing down opposing defenders has frustrated Underwood. Pickett turning those opportunities into 73 points this season against the Illini has only fueled those frustrations.

"They go to booty ball, and it's really, really hard to guard," Underwood said. "When you can keep the possession of the ball for 12-13 seconds and just keep backing up and you have no recourse in how you guard it because you can't touch them, it becomes very challenging. If you double, he sprays it. They have the rule in the NBA that eliminates that, but they don't in college."

Pickett wasn't necessarily thrilled with his playing style getting the "booty ball" moniker. He was pleased that he turned it into 12 points during Thursday night's 79-76 win by the 10th-seeded Nittany Lions against the seventh-seeded Illini.

"I play a physical game," Pickett said. "I don't know about booty ball. I kind of want to change that word, but I play a tough game. Just getting down to my spots — being aggressive down there. They kind of went to Coleman Hawkins in the second half and kind of tried to do it to us. That was a good fight down there with them."

Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry made it clear that the Nittany Lions would keep going to "booty ball" with Pickett. That they'd simply continue to take advantage of what they're able to do offensively within the rules.

"All he's doing is playing basketball," Shrewsberry said. "You could say, 'Yeah, he's got the dribble and he's backing people down,' but they're playing booty ball in the paint. They're doing the same exact thing as us, just from a different position on the floor the way they were posting (Dain) Dainja, the way they were posting Hawkins in the middle of the court.

"We just choose to start it in a different area. I don't know. He's a good player. It's hard to stop. It's hard to deal with. That's why he's an All-American."

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Illinois did try a different tactic offensively by going to Dainja and Hawkins more in the low post to try and capitalize on a smaller Penn State lineup. Hawkins scored 17 points on 8-of-14 shooting, and Dainja overcame a tough start to finish with 13 points on 4 of 10 shooting.

"I think it's just our length," Hawkins said. "This is no disrespect to Pickett, but he's kind of like a free safety out there, so we kind of wanted to exploit that. Kind of make him want to guard. When we get them guarding, it's harder on them to run their offense and make shots because they're doing it on both ends.

"I don't know how tall Pickett is, but I should be doing that and I haven't really done a good job of posting up all year. I mean, when it's a guard and I'm a 4/5 you should be able to score in the paint like that."

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One of the more bizarre dead ball technical fouls was called in the second half against Dainja. The Illinois big man had just finished at the rim and drawn a foul when his exuberant celebration took him right in the path of Penn State's Myles Dread.

Dainja finished his celebration with what essentially became a head butt. While Dainja converted his three-point play, the Nittany Lions got a pair of free throws from Andrew Funk and the ball. What would have been a six-point Illini lead was instead four and then became just one less than a minute later when Funk hit one of his five second half three-pointers.

"That was a really big momentum change, and we were kind of on the run," Illinois guard Terrence Shannon Jr. said.

Dainja said he simply didn't see Dread in front of him.

"I just celebrated," Dainja said. "I didn't see him. I had my eyes closed, so I didn't know he was right in front of me so I ran into him. I tried to talk to the ref about it, but he said things about concussions and stuff like that."

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Jayden Epps made his return from a concussion Thursday night against Penn State. Briefly, at least. The freshman guard missed the last two games after suffering a concussion in a Feb. 28 practice and spending one night hospitalized at Carle Foundation Hospital.

Epps did make a three-pointer at the buzzer with the game already decided, but it was the only shot he made all night. The 6-2 guard finished with those three points to go with one assist and one steal in just three minutes.

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Selection Sunday is up next for Illinois with an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament basically a guarantee. It's not a 100 percent lock, per Bart Torvik's TourneyCast, but a 98.7 percent chance is lock adjacent.

Where Illinois lands, of course, is still to be determined from a seeding and geographic standpoint. The way Underwood discussed that next stage of the season, though, made it clear he's ready to see somebody other than another Big Ten team.

"We'll give it a whirl wherever they send us," he said before a slight pause, "against somebody not in the Big Ten."

Whether Illinois discussed NCAA tournament seeding before Thursday night's loss to Penn State depends on who you ask.

It was a "no" from Underwood.

"What some committee does, we've got a (32)-game résumé," the Illinois coach said. "We've got great non-league wins. We can't change any of that."

Shannon had a different take.

"Once we lost the Ohio State game, (Underwood) just told us, 'We're playing for a seed now,'" the veteran guard said.

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Illinois' goal was for as high a seed as possible in the NCAA tournament. A win or two in the Big Ten tournament was the only way to assure that. That option off the table, the Illini's focus turns to the last remaining goal on their list. Compete for an NCAA title. That biggest stage of the college basketball season will be new for Illinois' freshmen. Leaning on the NCAA tournament experience and success of Shannon and fellow transfer Matthew Mayer — a national champion at Baylor — could be key.

"The lights are pretty bright, but that shouldn't change the way you play," Shannon said would be his advice for his younger teammates. "We worked all summer. We're built for this time. There's no pressure. We've just got to go out and play hard. We all had the vision of playing in March. Everybody's dream and goals are to win the national championship."

Scott Richey