Lions drop to 0-3 in Big Ten

UNIVERSITY PARK – In the final minute of Penn State’s Big Ten home opener vs. Michigan at the Jordan Center Tuesday night, a young Wolverine fan began screaming, “It’s all over.” She did it again and again, as the Maize and Blue clad adults in the otherwise empty section around her laughed.

The thing was, nobody in the arena could argue. After rallying from 10 down in the second half, the Nittany Lions ran out of steam in the clutch and stumbled to their third straight defeat to start league play.

The final was 73-64, but it was “all over” well before getting to that point. The NCAA Tournament hopes State built with a record-setting 12 non-conference wins may be finished, too, as they now stand at 12-4 overall but 0-3 in the league.

Which would not seem all that dire except for the fact that the last two losses were at Rutgers (which was expected to finish 14th in the conference) and to U-M (9-6, 2-1), whose resume sports home defeats to New Jersey Tech and Eastern Michigan.

Fourth-year coach Pat Chambers is at a loss to explain the slide, which followed 10-straight wins to close out the non-con.

“We are good,” he said. “Despite our record now, we are a good basketball team.”

Chambers is partly right. Penn State is good at times. And it is good in certain positions. But it is also bad at certain times and average (at best) at certain positions. Both negatives came into play Tuesday.

On the timing front, after falling behind 51-41 when Wolverine Aubrey Dawkins made a 3-pointer with 11:40 left, the Lions switched to a scrambling zone defense. And it confused rebuilding U-M.

State rattled off a 12-2 run over the next three minutes to tie it at 53-53 on Jordan Dickerson’s alley-oop dunk. But with tons of momentum on the PSU side and the Wolverines in full panic mode, Lion rookie Shep Garner hacked U-M’s Derrick Walton Jr. on a rushed 3-point try.

It happened right before a media timeout, which quieted the crowd. Then Walton was pure on all three free throws to sap whatever energy was left in the building.

Afterward, Chambers half complained about the call and half said it was poor defense. But the most telling comment was, “We have to do a better job of taking the refs out of the game.”

They had to do a better job of taking talented Wolverine wing Caris LeVert out of the game, too. Because from that juncture, LeVert took over, scoring six straight points for U-M by basically going 1-on-5 vs. the zone.

“He took over the game, that’s what big-time players do,” Chambers said. It is what Lion senior D.J. Newbill had done so often in the non-con. Yet while he led PSU with 20 on this night, Newbill’s late-game mojo was not there.

He missed a key front end of a one-and-one. Then, with PSU trailing 64-60 in the final minute, he had back to back turnovers that led to four easy Wolverine points to make it 68-60.

“They made plays, man, you’ve got to give them credit,” Newbill said.

In fairness to Newbill (and the rest of the PSU guards), they were hardly the problem in this game (and have not been most of the season). Penn State’s starting frontcourt was a disaster from start to finish Tuesday, and had it played remotely well the outcome likely would have been different.

Forward Brandon Taylor was 1 of 10 from the floor. Forward Ross Travis was 0 of 3. And Dickerson was 1 of 4. They combined to shoot 2 of 17 from the floor, for five points and seven rebounds. And only three of the 17 shots – all by Taylor – were from any sort of distance.

“They just didn’t fall,” Chambers said when it really was all over. “It’s gonna happen.”

GAME NOTES: Reserve guard John Johnson was the only other Lion in doubles with 16. … LeVert led the Wolverines with 18 despite being limited to 25 minutes due to foul trouble. … The Altoona Show Twirlers preformed at halftime and were extremely well received. … Penn State draws an early-season bye this weekend before resuming conference action at Indiana next Tuesday. The game will be carried by BTN.