STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Maybe Penn State will be a factor in the Big Ten race after all.
After Andrew Jones' putback with a one second left beat No. 16 Illinois 57-55 on Tuesday night, the Nittany Lions may have at least proven they won't be a conference pushover.
Talor Battle had 26 points and Jones' conversion of a miss by Battle had fans rushing the Jordan Center court.
There was good reason to celebrate -- it was the first time Penn State (10-6, 3-2 Big Ten) beat ranked foes in consecutive games since the 1954 NCAA tournament. The Nittany Lions beat then-No. 18 Michigan State 66-62 on Saturday.
But Penn State practiced the past couple days like it lost the night before -- a strategy that appears to be working.
Defense and rebounding has been a priority since a 15-point loss to Purdue last week, and it paid off to help Penn State overcome its own poor shooting Tuesday (34 percent). Illinois had 15 turnovers and got outrebounded 33-28, the second straight game Penn State has had the edge in both categories.
"We're practicing like we have something to prove," Battle said.
After a layup by Illinois' Bill Cole tied the game with 20 seconds left, go-to guy Battle set up for the last shot. His off-balance attempt off a drive through the lane bounced off the rim and into the hands of Jones, the 6-foot-10 center who dunked in the go-ahead basket.
Illinois' desperation heave downcourt was intercepted by Jones, and the blue-and-white faithful rushed the court despite repeated pleas from the public address announcer not to.
Mike Tisdale had 16 points and a career-high 14 rebounds for Illinois (13-4, 3-1), which had erased a 12-point first-half deficit. Demetri McCamey added 10 points.
"I just knew it was going to be close," Illini coach Bruce Weber said. "Theme of the week was for us to find a way to win."
After a potentially damaging nonconference loss to Maine, Penn State has had a dramatic midseason turnaround. They are 2-1 in the midst of a five-game stretch against ranked opponents.
Battle, as usual, has been the spark plug. The 6-foot guard rebounded from a shooting slump with 3s from 35 and 28 feet, and got fouled repeatedly as he weaved through a chippy defense for mid-range jumpers. Battle finished 8-of-15 from the field, including 4-of-9 from 3-point territory.
"The two bombs just killed us. That's what good players do, they make the tough play and the tough shot," Weber said.
But it was Jones who made the big play at the end. Jones, who was surrounded by a throng of fans on the court after his dramatic putback, finished with 12 points and eight rebounds.
The heroics didn't look necessary early on.
Flying around the court for one of its best defensive efforts of the season, Penn State took advantage of nine first-half turnovers by Illinois to jump out to a double-digit lead. Jeff Brooks' 3 in the corner off Tim Frazier's drive-and-dish made it 25-13 with 5:58 left.
After a cold-shooting start, the Illini closed with a 12-0 run and found success attacking the basket Mike Davis' inside bucket just before the first-half buzzer tying the game at 25 before the seesaw second half.
Cole and Davis both finished with eight points for Illinois, which shot 41 percent for the game after opening Big Ten play hitting 64 percent from the field.
Coach Ed DeChellis said this week his team would have to keep the score in the 60s for a chance to win against one of the conference's best offensive teams. With a trip to No. 2 Ohio State looming Saturday, the celebration in Happy Valley may not last long.
"This is a very unforgiving league," he said.