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No Baker's Dozen

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Don't talk, just savor it.

It might not be very meaningful in the big picture.  It didn't save the 2010 season.  It didn't make the 12 losses that preceded it any easier to take.  But a win is a win.

The Nittany Lions knocked off Northwestern 81-70 in Evanston on Wednesday night for their first conference win of the season and sent a message to top dogs in the Big Ten:

We ruined Northwestern, and we'll ruin you.

The loss all but knocked the Wildcats out of the at-large discussion for the NCAA tournament, and with games remaining against Ohio St., Purdue, and Michigan St., the Lions will be playing meaningful basketball into March, looking to serve as spoiler in the Big Ten race.

Anyone who has watched the team in 2010 knows it isn't a great one.  Heck, it might not even be a good one.  But it certainly is not the 0-12 bad it was heading into Wednesday's game, and this win serves notice to those around the league that the Lions aren't going to lay down and die for anyone.  They're going to make life miserable for opponents the rest of the way.

The cat fight began with a trading of punches.  Penn State jumped to an early five point lead, but by midway through the first half, it was Northwestern that was ahead five.  From that point forward though, it was all Penn State.  The Lions went on a 8-0 run to take a 30-27 lead with just over three minutes to go in the first, and they never looked back.

The second half opened with a flurry of scoring for both teams, but by the 12:45 mark, the Lions had a nine point lead and all of the momentum.  Northwestern continued to hang around through the rest of the game, closing to within three at one point, but for once, it was Penn State's opposition that just didn't quite enough to get over the hump, as Penn State held the Wildcats off for the win.

The Good

All five Penn State starters finished in double figures, and amazingly, Talor Battle was the last Lion to get there.  The depth of scoring Wednesday night is what basketball dreams are made of.  Chris Babb and David Jackson had 20 points each, and while that would normally be cause for enormous celebration on its own, it just gets better.  Andrew Jones and Jeff Brooks, whose struggles are among the biggest reasons Penn State has suffered such an abysmal start to conference play, had 10 and 12 respectively.  It was without a doubt the best team effort the Lions have had all season on offense.

Penn State gave up three offensive rebounds the entire night, including zero in the first half.  While Penn State has generally been pretty good on the glass this season, the lack of timely defensive rebounds has been a problem that has doomed the Lions on more than once occasion.  Penn State handled Northwestern on the glass in its own end, which limited the second chances Northwestern got to run their clock-eating Princeton sets, and kept the 'cats from ever getting too close in the second half.

The Nits shot 20-23 from the free throw line for 87%.  Perhaps most encouraging about that is that all the success was distributed pretty evenly.  Babb was 6-6, Battle was 5-6, Jackson was 5-5, and Jones was 2-3.  It wasn't just one guy getting it done from the line.  Like the scoring in general, the Nittany Lions put together a great effort from the line as a team.

The Bad

Lost in all the offensive success were more struggles on defense.  70 points is a great offensive night for Northwestern, a team that likes to eat clock and limit possessions.  The 'cats were able to exploit Penn State for 48% shooting, including 10 three-pointers, and hit shots from all points on the floor.  The Lions still need a lot of work on their rotations in zone and man-to-man sets before they're going to be able to beat some of the better teams in the league.

Penn State flirted with disaster by racking up a lot of fouls.  Jones ended up fouling out of the game, and Brooks and Jackson each ended the game with four fouls.  Some of it had to do with the refs calling a tight game, but some of the fouls, specifically a David Jackson foul of John Shurna on a second half fast break, were dumb ones to take.

The Lions racked up 14 turnovers by game's end, and almost undid all the good work they did on the glass by giving Northwesten extra possessions via carelessness.  There were more than a few pretty dumb passes that Northwestern exploited to keep the game closer than it should have been.

The Ugly

Northwestern's free throw shooting was terrible.  The 'cats shot 4-11 from the stripe including an 0-6 performance by Luka Mirkovic.  It's a good thing (for them) Northwestern didn't go to the line more often, or they might have left even more points on the rim.

Bill Edwards suffered another apparent injury tonight in the first half.  Tough to see a kid who's been getting better all season be plagued by this stuff.

All in all, it was a great night for Penn State.  With five regular season games left, and at least one conference tournament game, the Lions will have plenty of chances to show their fans why they can believe in them in 2011.  Next up is Michigan on Saturday, when Penn State will be looking to avenge a come-from-ahead loss to the Wolverines at the Jordan Center in early January.