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Giger: Lions right ship in crucial game

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UNIVERSITY PARK — Most coaches won’t admit publicly that one contest is a must-win game, even when it’s pretty obvious.

Like the game Penn State played Saturday afternoon.

“Was it a must win?” Patrick Chambers replied when asked. “I don’t believe in that. I believe there’s a lot of basketball left to be played. There’s still a lot of time.”

Be that as it may, Penn State would have been in a world of hurt had it lost to Ohio State in front of a packed house of 14,785 at the Bryce Jordan Center.

Everybody knew it.

Including Chambers.

“For my sanity,” he said with a laugh about the importance of the victory following a three-game losing streak.

The Nittany Lions answered some big questions on this day with a 90-76 thumping of the Buckeyes.

Penn State dominated from the outset, rather stunning considering what happened the last time the teams met six weeks ago, when Ohio State destroyed PSU by 32 points, 106-74, in Columbus on Dec. 7.

By protecting home court, which is absolutely vital now more than ever in college basketball, Penn State moved to 3-4 in the Big Ten and earned a nice resume boost.

Dropping to 2-5 would have buried the Lions in a big hole as they fight to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011 and for just the sixth time since 1965.

Penn State is definitely one of the 68 best teams in the country. If you think that’s up for debate, you’re just not watching games around the rest of college basketball.

The problem is the Big Ten is absolutely brutal. Every game is a war. There are no easy wins — against anybody.

The Lions must get to 9-11 in the Big Ten to reach the NCAA Tournament. That should be good enough because, in this league, a club that’s under .500 can indeed still be a tournament team if it has a strong all-around resume.

Right now, Penn State has that. It is No. 41 in the latest NET rankings, and that number will tick up a few spots thanks to Saturday’s win.

So the Lions have the resume.

What they often fail is the eye test.

This team and this program can be maddening to watch at times, and that was certainly the case in Wednesday’s 75-69 loss at Minnesota when PSU went nearly 10 minutes without a field goal and scored only 23 points in the second half.

That was the kind of game that makes you doubt just how good this team really is, especially since it was the third straight loss after everyone was singing the Lions’ praises.

By coming out and pounding Ohio State, the Lions got back on track, pulled back within a game of .500 in the league and showed that maybe, just maybe, this year really will be different.

“I know this team isn’t like other teams,” PSU star Lamar Stevens said, referring to the disappointing letdowns that have plagued the program for years. “So when people refer back to that, I know being here for four years this team isn’t like any other team before.

“We’re definitely one of the best teams in the country when we play at this level,” Stevens added.

No, Penn State doesn’t play at that level every game.

Which can be frustrating, no doubt.

And it usually leads to a “this team is going nowhere” type of reaction from a worn-down fan base that so badly wants to see the program achieve a consistent level of success.

But here’s the thing: We all need to get some perspective when it comes to how we judge THIS particular Penn State team THIS year.

Some things to consider:

n Michigan State is the best team in the Big Ten. But the Spartans got humiliated at Purdue last week by 29 points, 71-42. Hey, it happens to the best of them.

n Ohio State was playing like perhaps the best team in the country early on, getting to No. 3 before losing at Minnesota. Since then, the Buckeyes have been lousy and are now 13th in the Big Ten at 2-5.

n Michigan looked fantastic early on, rose to No. 4 and handed current No. 1 Gonzaga its only loss. The Wolverines are now 11th in the Big Ten with a 2-4 record.

n Maryland once was the No. 4 team in the country, before losing to Penn State. Now the Terps are the No. 4 team in the Big Ten at 4-3.

This league can chew you up and spit you out on any given night, no matter how good you or anyone else thinks you are.

The rest of the sport, in conferences big and small, is in a similar position. The difference between playing at home and on the road in college basketball is staggering, and the Lions got in on that act Saturday with their 46-point turnaround from the Ohio State trip.

“College basketball is probably the craziest and most unpredictable that it’s been in my four years,” Stevens said. “I think college basketball is definitely in a special place right now.”

We need to keep all of that in mind when trying to figure out how good Penn State is or is not.

I know, I know. It’s hard. Because PSU has long been such low-hanging fruit as a basketball program that it’s been easy to rip the team, the program and Chambers or whoever else was coaching at the first sign of struggles.

Time and time again over the years, the team has been unable to right the ship, so the struggles have mounted and mounted, erasing all hopes for the season.

All of that is why Saturday was indeed a must-win game for the Lions. They needed to end the losing streak, to pick up a key win at home, to beat a team with a good resume, to boost their tournament hopes and to quiet down a nervous fan base.

Check, on all accounts.

Cory Giger can be reached at cgiger@altoonamirror.com.

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