UNIVERSITY PARK - A late whistle and foul call that made Penn State coach Patrick Chambers livid led to Northwestern hitting two game-winning free throws with 2.6 seconds left Saturday night.
"It was a late whistle. I thought we had the ball, I thought we were going to go down and shoot one-and-one," Chambers said.
Northwestern, which has never made the NCAA Tournament, desperately needed a win to keep its hopes alive. The Big Ten's leading scorer, John Shurna, tried to take a go-ahead shot with his team trailing by one in the closing seconds, but it was blocked by PSU's Jon Graham.
One thing coaches and players hate as much as anything is a late whistle. In this case, it appeared at least a full second had passed before the official blew his whistle on Graham.
The foul was called, though, and Shurna buried both free throws to give Northwestern a 67-66 win before 8,513 fans at the Bryce Jordan Center.
"The ref saw a foul, so he called it," said PSU guard Tim Frazier, who scored 23 points and missed a 30-foot shot at the buzzer that would have won it.
At that point, an infuriated Chambers went onto the court to yell at the officials as they made their way to the locker room.
"I let my emotions get the best of me," Chambers said of his postgame frustration. "I shouldn't do that. That's not what Penn State's all about. That's not what I'm about.
"Emotions get the best of you," Chambers added. "You want so much for these kids, they work so hard and you'd rather see it in the kids' hands."
Frazier's three-point play with 2:48 left gave Penn State a 66-65 lead, and both teams struggled on offense in the closing minutes. The Nittany Lions (12-17, 4-12 Big Ten) had a chance to increase the slim one-point margin, but Graham missed two free throws with 14.1 seconds to go.
Northwestern (17-11, 7-9) grabbed the rebound, worked the ball up the court and got it to Shurna, who averages 20 points. The 6-foot-9 forward tried to get off a shot and couldn't get it over Graham, but Northwestern got the benefit of the late foul call.
"I thought we had it, but it was pretty loud. I didn't really hear a whistle at all," Frazier said.
Northwestern snapped a seven-game losing streak at the Jordan Center. Wildcats coach Bill Carmody said of the late foul call, "It's a good crew out there. I'll have to watch the tape to see if it was a clean block."
Northwestern came to the Bryce Jordan Center in must-win mode, and Penn State could have all but destroyed the Wildcats' hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
Northwestern had a solid RPI of 47 entering the game, but the Wildcats were just 6-9 in the Big Ten. Had Northwestern suffered a 10th conference loss Saturday heading into what likely will be a loss coming up Wednesday against No. 8 Ohio State, the Wildcats would have had a tough time making a case as an NCAA at-large team.
"We do have a decent schedule and a decent RPI, but if you're [6-10], forget about it," Carmody said. "We had to get this game."
Penn State jumped out to a fast start, building an 18-10 lead in the first eight minutes. The Lions trailed 6-4 before Cammeron Woodyard's 3-pointer ignited a 9-0 run for a 13-6 lead.
Northwestern erased a 20-13 deficit by scoring 12 unanswered points, taking the lead on a 3-pointer by Shurna that made it 22-20 with 8:56 left in the half. Dave Sobolewski's three-point play capped the 12-0 run and gave the Wildcats a 25-20 lead.
Northwestern pushed the margin to 34-28 at the break as JerShon Cobb buried a 3-pointer with 26 seconds left.
Penn State climbed within 36-34 on a bucket by Frazier with 16:55 to go, but Shurna and Northwestern answered with a 7-0 run. Shurna scored the final five points on a 3-pointer and fast-break layup for a 43-34 lead with 15:14 remaining.
The Lions came roaring back, however, sparked by a big-time one-handed jam from Frazier that led to a three-point play. Some strong play inside from Ross Travis also played a key role in PSU going on an 18-6 run.
Cammeron Woodyard capped the spurt with a 3-pointer from the left baseline for a 52-49 Lion edge with 8:40 to play. Both teams got hot after that and traded big bucket after big bucket to keep to keep things tight.
Graham and Travis had 10 points apiece for PSU, while Drew Crawford had 13 and Alex Marcotullio had 12 for Northwestern.
NORTHWESTERN (17-11): Crawford 4-9 1-2 13, Shurna 7-17 6-8 23, Sobolewski 3-8 1-1 8, Hearn 2-5 0-1 6, Cobb 2-4 0-0 5, Marcotullio 4-7 0-0 12, Curletti 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-50 8-12 67.
PENN ST. (12-17): Graham 5-6 0-2 10, Travis 5-8 0-0 10, Colella 1-5 0-0 2, Frazier 9-17 4-4 23, Woodyard 3-8 0-0 8, Lewis 0-1 0-0 0, Glover 0-1 0-2 0, Marshall 4-9 0-0 8, Borovnjak 2-2 1-1 5. Totals 29-57 5-9 66.
Halftime-Northwestern 34-28. 3-Point Goals-Northwestern 15-29 (Crawford 4-5, Marcotullio 4-6, Shurna 3-9, Hearn 2-4, Cobb 1-2, Sobolewski 1-3), Penn St. 3-14 (Woodyard 2-3, Frazier 1-2, Lewis 0-1, Glover 0-1, Marshall 0-3, Colella 0-4). Fouled Out-None. Rebounds-Northwestern 22 (Crawford 9), Penn St. 37 (Travis 9). Assists-Northwestern 15 (Shurna 6), Penn St. 15 (Frazier 8). Total Fouls-Northwestern 13, Penn St. 15. A-8,513.