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Penn State 52, Minnesota 50: This Is What Pure Grit Looks Like

In a game where they shot barely above 30% from the floor, Penn State found a way to beat a Top 25 Minnesota team and get some much-needed momentum in Big Ten play.

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Following their best performance of the Big Ten slate last weekend against Michigan State at the Palestra, the Nittany Lions sought an encore performance at the Jordan Center against a 24th-ranked Minnesota team looking to get back on track after getting destroyed on the road against the same Michigan State team that PSU knocked off last weekend. Unfortunately, the same issues that had plagued the Lions for a good chunk of the season reared their ugly heads again, particularly the inability to knock down shots. Stifling defense from Minnesota led to PSU shooting a paltry 28.5% in the first half, which was topped off with ten turnovers, leading to the Gophers holding a ten-point lead at the half.

The second half was barely any better shooting-wise (PSU went up to 32% and finished the game shooting 31%) and the deficit ballooned to as high as 14 points, but somehow, the offensive side of things started to click just enough to claw back while the defense continued to hold Minnesota in check. Payton Banks nailed a pair of three-pointers en route to ten total points, while Josh Reaves contributed with some solid rebounding and stealing (Reaves accounted for five of PSU’s nine steals on the day) and Mike Watkins led the way, scoring-wise for the Lions, en route to a 15-point, 15-rebound double-double performance. PSU got its first lead midway through the second half, and the game from then on remained tight until the very end.

Speaking of the very end: Tony Carr was the unlikely hero of the game, as the freshman guard who had been held scoreless all game long (after scoring 14 against Michigan State a week ago), drew a foul on an in-bounds play with the game tied at 50 with six seconds left and calmly sank both free throws to earn PSU its first back-to-back wins in Big Ten play this season. Pat Chambers cited Carr’s courage and wanting the ball in his hands at the end of the game despite a horrendous day shooting (Carr was 0-for-6 from the floor) during the post-game press conference.

Four Factors

Team Total Possessions PPP eFG% OReb% TO% FT Rate
Team Total Possessions PPP eFG% OReb% TO% FT Rate
Penn State 71 1.07 50.0% 35.5% 19.7% 47.3%
Nebraska - 0.94 39.5% 34.0% 11.3% 13.2%

The stats for both teams were uglier than Buzz’s girlfriend. The real difference-maker here though, was the free throw shooting. PSU got to the line 20 times, nailing 16 of their attempts, while the Gophers only made 11 trips, sinking eight of their attempts. It goes to show that in an ugly defensive battle where your team is shooting worse than your opponent, it all comes down to the little things like not turning the ball over as much and getting to the line/making your free throws.

Player of the Game - Mike Watkins (15 points, 15 rebounds, 1 block, 1 steal)

It was highly tempting to put Josh Reaves up here, given his overall scrappiness and near double-double of nine points and eight rebounds to go along with his five steals, but the (slighter than you think) edge goes to Mr. Watkins, who has been an absolute godsend in the paint. Watkins was responsible for numerous offensive put-backs and dunks fed to him by his teammates, and was also a strong defensive presence in the paint, although he was below his 2.8 blocks/game average today. As someone who has been following PSU hoops since the early 90’s and remembers the glory days of John Amaechi and Calvin Booth: Watkins is without question, the most athletic offensively capable big man I have seen don a PSU uniform.

Random Observations

  1. Best BJC crowd of the year - You can attribute it to several factors: One with it being THON day, in which all the ticket sales went towards the Four Diamonds Fund, but also with the game being on a weekend and with the team coming off a nice win over Michigan State. Today’s win only further encourages fans to continue showing up, no matter how god-awful of a basketball arena the Jordan Center may be.
  2. RELEASE THE STREAMERS - At halftime, several Four Diamonds families were brought to center court and recognized before being showered with streamers from the student section. It was a nice gesture amongst numerous other tributes during timeouts for THON. It also dawned upon me that this year marks a full decade since THON was moved to the BJC from Rec Hall. Having myself volunteered on a committee to help out with the very first BJC THON, I continue to be amazed at just how much this institution has grown since then (and I thought it was pretty remarkable back in 2007).
  3. The difficult non-conference schedule is finally paying dividends - Gritting out tough wins over the likes of Minnesota and Michigan State is no small feat and is the result of this young pack of Lions taking their lumps early on during the non-conference slate. Getting beat down by Duke and Cincinnati at the Mohegan Sun and suffering losses to the likes of Albany and George Mason sure was difficult to watch, but it also helped make this team more battle-hardened and ready to take on the rigors and adversity that playing basketball in the Big Ten provides. Chambers even alluded to it during the press conference:

4. Josh Reaves is the heart and soul of the team - [LeVar Burton voice] But hey, don’t take MY word for it!

Up Next

The Nittany Lions (11-7, 3-2) take on Indiana at the BJC this coming Wednesday. Tip-off is at 7:00 PM ET on BTN.