STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State guard Josh Reaves has never gotten as many hugs or pats on the back as he did on Sunday.
His teammates made sure to show their wily veteran their love after Reaves scored a career-high 26 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to lead Penn State over Illinois 72-56 in the regular-season finale for both teams.
The win guaranteed Penn State (14-17, 7-13) a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament and cemented Reaves’ legacy as one of the most versatile players to ever step on the Bryce Jordan Center hardwood.
“He represents us in a way that you want to be represented, that Penn Staters love,” coach Pat Chambers said. “His character, his integrity, the way he played today in a critical game that had a tournament feel. Nobody was going to give an inch, and man did he show up.”
Reaves made 10 of 17 field-goal attempts including a career-best 6 of 10 from 3-point range to lead the Nittany Lions in a game they led for all but 3:23 of the second half. He added four steals, two assists and a block which moved him into the program’s top 10 in the latter category. He needs six steals to become Penn State’s all-time leader.
“They were very good, especially in the second half,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “Hopefully, if we play them again, it’s in the championship and, we don’t see them. They’re a very difficult, tough matchup for us.”
Lamar Stevens added 16 points for the Nittany Lions, who won their second in a row.
Ayo Dosunmo and Giorgi Bezhanishvili scored 16 points apiece for Illinois (11-20, 7-13).
Penn State trailed 32-31 at halftime but Reaves made sure that didn’t stick. He scored 11 of Penn State’s first 16 points in the second and his fourth 3-pointer gave Penn State a lead it wouldn’t relinquish just over three minutes into the half.
The Nittany Lions pulled away to lead by as many as 14.
After both teams traded baskets in the opening minutes of the game, Illinois used a 14-7 run and led 19-12 midway through the half. The Nittany Lions had gone 1 for 12 from 3-point range to that point but got three in a row from Reaves and Rasir Bolton before a 3-point play from Stevens put Penn State up 26-25.
The Illini ended the first half with an 8-5 run that included a pair of 3-pointers from Dosunmo.
Underwood didn’t expect Reaves to be the sharpshooter from 3-point range.
“You look at his numbers, it’s something he’s not great at,” Underwood said.
Reaves entered the game as a career 32 percent 3-point shooter. He made Penn State’s first two and contributed two massive dunks to cap his final regular-season game. A soaring, left-handed dunk got the crowd into it early in the first and Reaves picked up his career-best point total with a two-handed slam with less than 30 seconds left.
“It really meant the world to me to end my career in this gym that way,” Reaves said. “I started off with a dunk on the other side and I’ll end it with a dunk on this side.”
SACRIFICE AND EXCLAMATION
Penn State’s lone other senior chipped in some fireworks too.
Forward Deivis Zemgulis was on the court for the final sequence and chucked a half-court shot at the buzzer that found its way through the hoop. He was mugged by his teammates on the way back to the bench.
Chambers planned to start Zemgulis in his final home game, but the veteran had a different wish, knowing how critical a first-round bye could be.
“He came to me the other day and said, ‘Coach, you can’t start me,'” Chambers said. “I said, ‘Why is that?’ He said, ‘We’re playing too well. We need to win the game.'”
THE BIG PICTURE
Illinois: The Illini lost five of six to end the regular season and will play in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. They entered with a chance to be seeded as high as eighth had they beaten Penn State and gotten some help.
Penn State: Since February started, the Nittany Lions have looked much more like the team that ran roughshod through the NIT field last March rather than the one that started 0-10 in the Big Ten. They finished the regular season with seven wins in 10 games and have a shot to keep their momentum going in Chicago.
Both teams will play in the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago, which begins on Wednesday.