With time winding down in the regular season and Penn State's NCAA Tournament hopes hanging in the balance, we'd be remiss if we buried the lead following the Nittany Lions' 66-52 victory against Northwestern on Thursday night in Evanston.
That's right. With their 15th win of the season, the Lions are assured of no less than a .500 record and eligibility for a spot in everyone's favorite consolation bracket, the National Invitational Tournament.
Of course, that's not going to be quite enough to satisfy most Penn State fans, but hey, considering where Penn State was at the end of December at 7-4 having just lost to Maine in the final non-conference game of the season, it's nothing short of a solid achievement that the team rallied to pull this off. It's also just the third postseason berth earned under coach Ed DeChellis.
Could it be better? Sure. It could also be a whole lot worse, so count your small blessings where they come.
Now, onto the game.
Jeff Brooks led the offensive charge for Penn State, tallying 20 points on an efficient 8-10 shooting. Tim Frazier racked up a double-double with 10 points and 10 assists and seniors Talor Battle and David Jackson each finished with double figure scoring.
The Lions raced out of the gates to an 18-2 advantage before allowing the Wildcats back into the game. By early in the second half, Northwestern cut the lead to a single point. Soon thereafter, though, Penn State took control and cruised back to an even 8-8 record in Big Ten play with two games left on the schedule.
Beating Northwestern does little to boost Penn State's tournament profile. It does, however, keep them alive. A loss in Evanston would likely have spelled certain doom heading down the stretch, but a win keeps the Lions breathing as they prepare to host No. 3 Ohio State on Senior Night Tuesday at the Bryce Jordan Center in what might be the program's biggest game in a decade.
- On one of Talor Battle's rare off nights (for him), Penn State's bigs stepped up big time, contributing an unheard of 41 points on the evening. They also helped the Lions outrebound the Wildcats 28-19. It may have been their most complete game of the season. David Jackson did fight a little foul trouble, but he was efficient scoring the basketball and gave the team exellent minutes while he was out there. The other two, Brooks and Andrew Jones, fought some hooks and grabs down low to give the Lions a distinct post advantage by night's end. Solid, solid effort from those guys.
- Penn State outshot Northwestern 56.5%-38.5%, an impressive number given the Lions were held under 50% in State College earlier this month. The defensive intensity was excellent from wire to wire and, for once, the Lions were able to play from a position of strength on the road rather than playing catch up.
John Shurna had another crappy game against Penn State, registering only 10 points on 2-10 shooting overall and 1-6 shooting from 3-point territory. He's been the Wildcats' difference maker this year and the Lions have twice mitigated his impact on the game well.
- No one expected Penn State's early domination to last the whole way, but it got a little nerve wracking when Northwestern cut the deficit to one early in the half. Penn State has seemed to have a knack for blowing double-digit leads lately, from Michigan and Minnesota at home earlier this month to this game. That's got to improve in these last few games, or the postseason could be going nowhere fast.
- With 12 turnovers, Penn State was a little sloppy. Granted, the Wildcats' zone applied pressure well, but some were unforced errors, and you never want that on the road. That volume of cough ups could cost Penn State the game next week at Minnesota, so the Lions need to work on taking care of the ball.
- The bench produced two points and two rebounds in 21 minutes. Say it with me now: That's too big a burden on the starters.
- Northwestern's zone worked well for part of the first half. Beyond that, it was utter crap and Bill Carmody's refusal to try something different very well cost his team the game. Tim Frazier has gotten a lot better this season and is growing into a heck of a young point guard, but when he's responsible for more than half of Penn State's offense, something is seriously, seriously wrong if you're the other team. Frazier was able to either break free from the 1-3-1 zone traps to find his bigs or draw a foul to score himself almost at will in the second half and Carmody stuck with the zone without blinking. It was remarkable. Poor decision from the Northwestern bench.
- Talor Battle played all 40 minutes. That's never good to see at this point in the season. By now, there should be at least one guard who can give him a blow every once and a while.