Every program has those games that live on forever in its lore and are forever fondly remembered and relived by its fanbase. Penn State fans are fortunate to have a long list of these games- 1981 vs. Pitt, the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, 2005 vs. Ohio State- the list can go on and on. Hidden Gems will focus on games that may not have the same prestige as those games, but certainly were memorable in some way or another and are an important part of the overall composition of Penn State sports.
Often when you think of the 2008-2009 Nittany Lion hoopsters, the dramatic wins are the first ones that spring to mind. Whether it was the degree of DeChellis or just Talor Battle's penchant for late-game heroics, the close results seemed to go their way more often than not. The group that went on to win the NIT Championship in Madison Square Garden had a number of famous victories (or infamous, if you prefer), but when you recall that season, the biggest upset isn't usually the first one you remember. Perhaps that's because all of your sports-viewing energy was spent on another quote unquote important sporting event from that day. If that's the case, then come with me, yinzers, and take the walk down memory lane to the Breslin Center.
Let's set the scene: at tip-off, Penn State was sitting squarely on the bubble at 16-5 (5-3). Without any marginally impressive out-of-conference wins, getting it done in the Big Ten was of critical importance for a team looking to dance for the first time since 2000-01. You know the cast: seniors Jamelle Cornley and Stanley Pringle, and the sophomores--Andrew Jones, Jeff Brooks, David Jackson and that season's breakout star, Battle.
Michigan State, ranked 9th in the country at the time, was well on its way to having another ho-hum National Title game appearance. Led by Kalin Lucas and a deep rotation, in which ten guys saw regular playing time, Sparty was once again running like a well-oiled machine. And even though they had suffered a home loss to Kevin Coble's Northwestern just a couple of weeks before the Lions came to town, nobody was betting on Penn State to sniff a win at Breslin.
To the highlights! (skip to 1:09 for immediate action):
The hallmark of Penn State basketball, at least as I know it, has been its streakiness during games. It was certainly present during the DeChellis era and it has yet to escape Pat Chambers, though the latter may have more of an excuse. The Lions went down by 13 points early in the game with Michigan State coming out swinging on offense. It looked bleak early, as any double digit deficit on the road against a top ten team should look.
Before we go any further with the wishy-washy nostalgia, let's talk about the pull-up three. My word, it is a horrible shot. It plays right into the defender's hand. Nobody off the ball is ever in position for an offensive rebound and there's almost always a better option. I recall Nick Colella taking a contested pull-up this past season, and I nearly drowned in exuberant disbelief. If I were a coach and one of my players walked the ball up the court and jacked up a 22-footer with 28 seconds on the shot clock (as Battle does at the 2:35 mark) I would have them run suicides until I got tired of blowing the whistle. DeChellis made it his strategic M.O. during the latter years of his tenure, and lo, it somehow worked in 2008-2009, mostly because Battle and Pringle (43% career 3pt shooter) lacked any inhibition and had the ability to make it work.
The upside to this shot is that if it's really falling, you become unguardable. On this day, and many days after, Talor Battle was just that. He even banked in a ~26-footer to extend the Lions' lead to ten with 12:15 to play, a lead they would never relinquish. The sophomore finished with a then career-high 29 points on 11-19 shooting, including 6-12 from distance. By this point in his career, you knew he was going to be a good player. After this showing, you knew he was destined to earn some of the highest accolades in Penn State history.
The idea that there are no easy wins on the road in the Big Ten was popularized during the conference's recent surge to the top of the college hoops landscape, but that doesn't mean it was any less true before that. Sparty, as the great teams tend to do, willed their way back into the game on the heels of their own sophomore stud, Lucas, and some typically poor free throw shooting from Penn State down the stretch (4-11 in the last 3:14 of the game).
Lucas had a chance to tie the game at 69 apiece at the foul line, and as a Penn State basketball fan I expected nothing less than that. Somehow, someway, the back end rimmed out and Andrew Jones, who had himself a breakout game (12 points, 9 rebounds), collected the board and sank both free throws. Praise the based upset gods, the Nittany Lions won a game they had absolutely no business winning, considering some of the ridiculous shots they made. Penn State 72, #9 Michigan State 68.
The Lions moved to 17-5, added the biggest possible notch to their belt, and moved themselves to the right side of the bubble. Of course, the story ends like most fairy tales gone awry--with everyone cursing Iowa--although the NIT run was certainly something to behold and cherish in its own right. In any case, after this upset, you knew this particular group was different. And "different" is a really good thing when you say it in the context of this program.
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