UNIVERSITY PARK - Talor Battle went out of his way to praise the Penn State fans for the difference he thought they made in Wednesday night's game against Michigan State.
Even though the Nittany Lions lost, 78-73.
''The crowd was great,'' Battle, the Lions' outstanding sophomore point guard, said. ''I want to thank them.''
Penn State may not have gotten the memo on the rare 6:30 p.m. start and quickly fell down 8-0. But the Lions regrouped to take the lead in the first half before slipping back to a double-digit deficit until 5:15 remained.
That's when Battle and senior forward Jamelle Cornley, who combined for 46 of the Nits' points, fueled a late surge that drew the Lions within one twice in the last 1:30.
The Jordan Center was rocking - imagine what it could be if this program won consistently.
''We're disappointed we came up short, but that [late] run may not have been possible without them,'' Battle said of the season-high 10,270 on hand. ''Hopefully, they'll keep coming out.''
Cornley, to his credit, took no consolation in pushing the No. 7 Spartans.
''We have to win,'' he said. ''We have to take advantage of playing here.''
Especially against this kind of opponent.
Fresh from an encouraging 13-4 start - the best under Ed DeChellis, albeit against the usual PSU-ordered smorgasbord of New Hampshire, New Jersey Tech, Army and Hartford - this was a great chance to prove the Nits could be a legitimate NCAA Tournament threat.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is already sold.
''This is a good Penn State team,'' he said. ''Other years they've played well and maybe not been as good. This year they're good, and they're going to win a lot of games.''
But the pendulum on home vs. road performances swings wide in college basketball, which is why Penn State felt it lost a solid opportunity.
In a year in which the Big Ten should get six and maybe even seven teams to the Big Dance - ''some people say eight or nine, and I believe that,'' Izzo said - the Lions could have used this game to jump off their resume.
''We had a ranked team on the ropes,'' Battle said. ''That will help us a lot.''
DeChellis, perhaps still smarting from a couple of key late calls that went the other way, wasn't buying into the big-game theory.
''We think we can every game at home,'' he said. ''But win and we have to play at Indiana Saturday. Lose and we have to play at Indiana Saturday.''
And you can be sure a struggling IU team has Penn State circled.
In the meantime, DeChellis must find a way to develop some other options beyond Battle and Cornley. Stanley Pringle was limited to 2-of-11 shooting as just four PSU players scored more than four points.
''Their guards [Battle and Pringle] are two of the best tandems in the league,'' Izzo said, ''and Cornley played within himself.''
But the Lions' lack of depth is clear, and even Izzo said, ''you worry about their legs,'' after watching Cornley and Battle played 40 minutes.
There's another way to look at it: Without an inside presence beyond Cornley, who will be done after this year (along with Pringle), the clock's ticking on the Nittany Lions.
And maybe their fans, a real sixth man Wednesday night, sense it.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.