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Penn State 59, Northwestern 52: Breathe A Sigh of Relief

The team finally broke through with a win in conference play

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State got off to a slow start, falling behind 10-2 in the first five minutes. Following their overtime loss against Purdue last week, there was cause for concern that the team just didn’t have it in them on the road in Evanston. After a timeout by Pat Chambers, they found their stride, and Northwestern was never able to regain their early 8-point lead.

Mike Watkins was locked in all night at both ends of the court. While Dererk Pardon still managed a solid 18 points and 9 rebounds, Watkins made his night as difficult as possible getting credited for 3 blocks, and altering many more shots. On offense, the team did a better job looking to feed Watkins the ball inside. While he only had 8 points, his presence alone helps to space the floor and create open shots.

With Myles Dread and Josh Reaves hampered due to foul trouble, a trio of guards off the bench provided enough scoring to supplement Lamar Stevens. Myreon Jones and Kyle McCloskey each contributed valuable minutes, but it was Rasir Bolton who led the way. While he didn’t light it up from 3-point range, he probably played his best game in terms of decision-making. After falling behind 10-2, Penn State outscored Northwestern 30-20 for the rest of the half, giving the visiting team a 32-30 lead heading into the half. They never relinquished their lead.

As has often been the case this year, Penn State struggled to pull away and open up a commanding lead despite Northwestern consistently giving them opportunities to do so. The opening ten minutes of the second half featured awful offense at both ends. Penn State looked the better team, but was shooting 50% from the free throw line, enabling Northwestern to hang close. At the midway point in the second half the Wildcats had more turnovers (4) than field goals (3), but the Nittany Lions had only extended their lead to 8 points.

Immediately, Northwestern used a five point run to claw back into it just as Penn State looked poised to pull away. The Wildcats would remain within a couple possessions until the closing minute of action. While the team shot poorly overall from the free-throw line (15-24), they closed out the game strong, hitting 8 of their last 10. Instead of relying on 3-point shooting to close out the game, players wisely drove to the basket opting for lay-ups and trips to the FT line. Penn State fittingly closed out the game with stifling defense. They finished with 9 total steals, and at least two of those came with under 2:30 to play. Reaves, who had a strong second half after dealing with foul trouble in the first, came up with a steal with under 30 seconds to play that clinched Penn State’s first conference victory of the season.

Four Factors Analysis

Northwestern went on an offensive drought that made Penn State look efficient. The Nittany Lions capitalized on turnovers leading to transition points, and for the second-straight game did an excellent job of getting to the free-throw line. It will be interesting to see if the trend continues, or if they revert back to their 3-point reliance.

Player(s) of the Game

Lamar Stevens continues to shine for Penn State. His scoring is the lifeblood of the offense, but tonight his box score shows the even greater value he provides to the team. He played under control, was dominant on defense, and hit crucial FT’s down the stretch. Mike Watkins deserves honorable mention for his game, as it was one of the most complete performances of the season. He made several effort plays that go unrecorded on the stat sheet, and I’m not sure they get the W without him.

Random Observations

Transition Scoring - This team is much much better when they’re able to run on offense and score in transition. They had 20 fast break points tonight, including some key shots in the final minutes that helped seal the deal. Fatigue may limit the ability to run full-court pressure, but it’s clear that the team needs to create opportunities to score in transition in order to win.

Bolton’s Free Throw Shooting - The team shooting the worst from the FT line in the conference happens to have the player with the best FT shooting % in the league with Bolton shooting 90%. It’s been overlooked due to the struggles of the rest of the team, but is outstanding from a true freshman. His poise at the line was clutch this evening.

Jamari Wheeler - He’s never going to be an offensive juggernaut, but Wheeler showed tonight that he is capable of contributing by aggressively driving to the basket. Wheeler just needs to score enough to keep defenses honest, and he did that tonight. However, he still needs to improve upon a 1-4 line from the charity stripe.

Up Next

The Nittany Lions will head to Columbus next to take on the Buckeyes. Ohio State will surely be looking to avenge their 0-3 mark against Penn State in 2017-18, while Penn State will look for consecutive wins. The game is at 7 pm on Thursday, 2/7 and will be televised by ESPN.