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Penn State 74, Northwestern 70: The Little Engine That Could, Did

Things looked dire for Penn State in the second half, but they found a way to come back and take the road win.

Penn State Nittany Lions forward John Harrar (21) is defended by Northwestern Wildcats forward Pete Nance (22) during the first half at Welsh-Ryan Arena. David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Northwestern Wildcats and Penn State Nittany Lions have usually found themselves together, fighting their way out of the basement of the conference. On rare occasions one of the two, but never both, has a good enough season to make that fight more of a reality. Going into the season, the general consensus was that it was the Wildcats’ turn to live life outside the basement. If you looked at records alone, you’d be inclined to agree.

You could tell from the tip that both teams wanted this game. Offenses came out swinging, with Penn State going to John Harar early, while Northwestern was testing the outside to great success. The Wildcats would end up shooting nearly 47% from three in the first half, which was instrumental in helping the Wildcats go into the half with a five point lead.

The threes kept coming for the Wildcats, and a barrage of offense early in the second half would open up a 10-point lead in favor of the home team. If you’ve been following Penn State basketball for longer than a season, you’d know that a 10-point deficit oftentimes spells doom for the Lions. And in this game, the way Northwestern was playing, it looked like the beginning of the end was nigh for the Lions.

But, just when it looked like Northwestern was going to run away with it, Penn State made three straight shots to cut the 10-point deficit down to four, then soon enough tied it all up. Suddenly, the Wildcats couldn’t find a bucket to save their lives, and the Nittany Lions dragged the game down to the kind of pace they love.

Before you knew it, Penn State found itself leading when Seth Lundy made a three pointer, and was fouled by Ty Berry. The ensuing free throw would turn a two-point deficit into a two point lead, and from there, the Lions did what they do best.

Four Factors Analysis

Let it be known that Penn State can still win games when they let their opponents shoot above 50% eFG rate. The biggest equalizer here is the Nittany Lions’ relentlessness on the glass, as the massive 12.8% difference in offensive rebounding rate meant the Lions had plenty of opportunities to get second chance points, and second chances they got.

The free throw rate is a bit misleading, since Northwestern had to foul late to keep the game close, but what did matter was making the shots when they needed to. Only Myles Dread missed a free throw in the closing minutes of the game, but his last make would salt the game away anyway.

Player of the Game

John Harrar had himself a near double double with eight rebounds and nine points. He, along with Kofi Cockburn of Illinois, are the only players in the conference averaging a double double this season. It was Seth Lundy and Jalen Pickett, however, who willed Penn State into this victory. Their combined 41 points (23 from Lundy and 18 from Pickett) all seemed to come when the Lions needed them the most. Lundy had two assists, two rebounds, and a block to his name, while Pickett pitched in four assists of his own, to go along with his six rebounds and a steal.

Random Observations

Double edged sword - the three saved Penn State against Indinia. It nearly doomed them in this game, as the wildcats shot 46.2% from beyond the arc to the Lions’ 33.3%. None of them bigger than Ty Berry’s three, up four, that had a foul tacked on. Not to be outdone, Lundy’s four-point play was also instrumental in completing the comeback.

Turnovers reared their ugly head again - Penn State 12 today. Each one worse than the other. 12 is less than their average of 15, so that’s progress, but it would be nice to have a game under 10, like Northwestern did tonight.

The blueprint is set - to beat Penn State, you must run the floor. Michigan State and Ohio State did it a month ago. Northwestern did it again in this game. The Lions have trouble setting their defense when teams are sprinting to the other end of the floor on offense. This is compounded by the Lions’ inability to dig themselves out of a deficit when teams are running up and down the floor.

As soon as Penn State was able to slow the game down and play their brand of offense and defense, Northwestern couldn’t do much to get the flow back their way, and the comeback was much easier to complete.

About those hammers - They’re of the “sledge” variety. That point was clarified in the broadcast.

Looking Ahead

Things don’t get any easier for Pennies State, as the Lions host Micah Shrewsberry’s former team in Purdue on Saturday. Game is at noon eastern on the Big Ten Network.