Despite blown lead, Lions move on to second round

By Paddy Cotter

For the Mirror

WASHINGTON, D.C.– A collective groan could be heard across Penn State basketball fandom on Wednesday when the Nittany Lions gave up a nine-point lead to Nebraska, forcing overtime, in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament.

The Lions had lost both of their overtime games this season, but those losses may have served as learning experiences because the Lions went on to make all 10 of their free-throw attempts in overtime to break their five-game losing streak, 76-67. That puts Penn State into today’s second-round matchup against Michigan State.

“I think our conference play really prepared us for times like this, going through so many close games, coming out on the short end of the stick,” Penn State freshman Lamar Stevens, who finished with 16 points, said. “We learned from those mistakes. I feel like that’s what enabled us to come out and get this win.”

With over four minutes left in regulation, the Cornhuskers implemented a full-court press on the exhausted Lions. The Cornhuskers benefitted from the high-pressure scheme, cutting the Lions lead to one with 1:30 left.

Guard Glynn Watson Jr. made a step-back jumper from beyond the arc to tie the game with 50 seconds left, 58-58.

The Cornhuskers knew who Penn State would rely on to lead the team on the final offensive possessions of regulation. Tony Carr, who finished with 11 points and nine rebounds, was in charge. Nebraska coach Tim Miles’ plan to put his best defender in Tai Webster, who leads the Cornhuskers with 17.2 points per game, on the freshman backfired as the senior fouled out in overtime.

Carr collected a foul, went to the free throw line and sank both shots with ease. But the two-point lead was quickly erased by an easy layup from sophomore Ed Morrow Jr., who had a team-high 10 rebounds.

An errant shot by Carr gave the Cornhuskers one last opportunity to steal a win before the end of regulation. The Cornhuskers were unable to make anything out of the final 2.7 seconds, forcing overtime.

With 3:24 left in overtime, Webster fouled out, leaving the Cornhuskers with a limited number of offensive options. For the Lions, some offensive weapons were just starting to contribute. The Lions garnered a momentum 3-pointer from Shep Garner, which was followed by Mike Watkins’s eighth block of the contest, which marked the most in the history of the Big Ten tournament.

A few desperation fouls by the Cornhuskers sealed the victory for the Lions, advancing them to their second matchup with the Spartans this season.

The opening minutes of the game featured desperation from the two teams that had failed to get a victory in their combined final nine games. Arduous fights for rebounds and stout defensive play headlined the scrappy effort.

The Lions were the first to make the interior their home in the first half, outscoring the Cornhuskers 20-12 in the paint. Watkins, who finished with a game-high 18 points and broke the Penn State freshman record of 254 rebounds with 11 against the Cornhuskers, led the interior effort.

The interior production cleared up a perimeter, which had been cloudy during the Lions’ five-game losing streak. Five minutes into the game, senior Payton Banks extended the Lions lead to seven with a 3-pointer. Webster, who finished the season third in the Big Ten with 17.2 points per game, scored a layup and a three pointer to cut the Lions lead to 15-13.

The Cornhuskers’ offensive production came to a halt at the 13:30 mark of the first half, allowing the Lions to score seven unanswered points and extend their lead to nine.

“We just couldn’t get anything going at the rim,” Miles said. “I think Watkins had a big deal to do with that.”

The Lions then hit a wall . Penn State gave up a 25-16 lead after falling into a four-minute scoring drought.

Webster’s game-tying 3-pointer at the 4:24 mark was the Cornhuskers’ only offense until Jack McVeigh added three for the Cornhuskers with 14 seconds left. The Lions, who were shooting an impressive 48 percent from the field, took a 38-33 lead into halftime.

Midway through the second half, Josh Reaves, who coach Patrick Chambers has referred to as the heart of Penn State’s defense, limped off the court with a right leg injury. The Cornhuskers were unable to capitalize on the Lions missing their best defender, entering their third prolonged scoring drought of the contest.

“I credit Shep and Payton for really keeping us fighting,” Stevens said. “They always keep us composed, being such a young team.”

Despite their opponent’s offensive struggles, the Lions were unable to make notable separation, allowing the Cornhuskers to stay within striking distance, 53-46.

Watkins was the primary source of offense for the Lions, scoring eight of the team’s first 17 points of the second half.

“We went into overtime, and we still held them under 70,” Chambers said. “Mike is a big reason for that.”

Despite the late push by the Cornhuskers that almost jeopardized the Lions’ chances of extending their season, the defense was able to produce the Lions’ magic stat. Penn State is 11-0 when limiting its opponents to less than 70 points.

If I bring the same energy, and my team brings the same energy,” Watkins said, “we should come out good.”

PENN STATE (15-17)

Stevens 5-9 4-4 16, Watkins 9-12 0-2 18, Banks 1-7 2-2 5, Reaves 2-6 5-5 9, Carr 3-13 5-7 11, Moore 0-1 0-0 0, Samuel 0-0 1-2 1, Garner 4-7 4-4 16, Washington 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-55 21-26 76.

NEBRASKA (12-19)

Jacobson 2-6 1-2 5, Morrow 3-9 2-2 8, Webster 4-16 2-3 12, Watson 5-16 0-0 11, Taylor 6-11 1-1 15, Horne 1-4 1-2 4, Roby 0-3 0-0 0, McVeigh 2-4 0-0 6, Tshimanga 3-7 0-0 6. Totals 26-76 7-10 67.

Halftime–Penn St. 38-33. End Of Regulation–Tied 60. 3-Point Goals–Penn St. 7-18 (Garner 4-7, Stevens 2-2, Banks 1-4, Reaves 0-1, Carr 0-4), Nebraska 8-24 (Taylor 2-3, McVeigh 2-4, Webster 2-9, Horne 1-3, Watson 1-4, Roby 0-1). Fouled Out–Webster. Rebounds–Penn St. 39 (Watkins 11), Nebraska 33 (Morrow 10). Assists–Penn St. 11 (Carr 6), Nebraska 7 (Webster, Watson 3). Total Fouls–Penn St. 14, Nebraska 24.

Round 2

Today: Penn State (15-17) vs. Michigan State (18-13), 2:25 p.m.

TV: Big Ten Network

This season: Penn State beat Michigan State, 72-63, in its only meeting

Winner gets: A trip to the quarterfinals on Friday at 2:30 p.m. against Minnesota