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Penn State uses late-game defense to stun Purdue

Penn State vs Purdue

 

A few thousand empty seats could be seen in the Bryce Jordan Center for Tuesday night’s basketball game between homestanding Penn State and visiting Purdue. A number of Nittany Lion fans wound up missing a moment that could very well mark the re-emergence of a long-dormant program.

The last time Penn State reached the NCAA Tournament, the year was 2001. In the seven seasons since that triumphant ’01 campaign—which took the program to the Sweet 16—basketball has proven to be a trail of tears in University Park, Pa. Nittany Lion ballclubs have turned into kittens on the court, slogging through an unending series of losing seasons that would end in early March at the Big Ten Tournament. A Nittany Lion team hasn’t won two games at the Big Ten tourney since 2001, and PSU has never reached the championship game of the event. Outside of Northwestern and Michigan, Penn State is the only other school in the conference that has had virtually nothing to cheer about on the hardwood in the past eight years. With the football school still smarting from the Rose Bowl loss to USC, it was understandable that an early-season home game against Purdue, the preseason conference favorite, could not draw a packed house.

Brutus Fathead But after Coach Ed DeChellis’s team stunned the Boilermakers, 67-64, the days of empty seats in Happy Valley might well be over.

 

This result wasn’t entirely expected, but the big story of this stunner is that it made a certain amount of sense.

 

Purdue is struggling to find its identity without injured stalwarts Robbie Hummel and Chris Kramer. Yet, the league favorite—which entered Tuesday’s action at 0-1 in the conference and in dire need of a bounce-back win—figured to bring a full-tilt effort at the Lions. Despite the improvements made by Penn State—in evidence during a close-shave loss to Wisconsin on Jan. 3 in Madison—the smart money had to favor Purdue. Just like doubting Thomas, longtime followers of Penn State basketball had to see evidence of a reborn program before they could believe it.

Those who didn’t buy a walk-up ticket to the Jordan Center possessed a certain amount of logic, for they wondered if Penn State basketball had developed to the point that the Nittany Lions could take advantage of an undermanned Purdue squad. The Boilermakers might have been banged up, but their opponent still had to snatch this win away from them on a night when Matt Painter’s team had to leave Pennsylvania with a positive result.

Sure enough, the Penn State loyalists who made the trek to this game were rewarded for their faith. Clearly, the Nittany Lions have found a new level of mental toughness in the first week of 2009.

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Stomachs had to be sinking, and old feelings of resignation had to be dominant in the hearts and minds of Nittany Lion fans with 10:21 left in the second half of this contest. After the home team blitzed the Boilermakers with a 14-0 run out of the gate, Purdue slowly and methodically imposed its will on the proceedings. From the middle of the first half to the middle of the second half, the visitors from West Lafayette had turned a 31-17 deficit into a 55-50 lead, outscoring PSU 38-19 during a 19-minute stretch. With sustained defensive pressure and better defensive rebounding, a hungry Purdue roster clawed its way past the Lions, showing the determination that’s become a hallmark of a Painter-coached team. If history was any guide, this was the point where a Penn State basketball team folded the tent and caved in the face of adversity.

Instead, history left the Jordan Center… and as a result, happy fans would leave the building several minutes later.

Yes, with 10:21 left in the second half and the Boilers in front by five after an E’Twaun Moore trifecta, the Nittany Lions responded with uncommon resolve. Without an offensive flourish from any of their starters, the young men in white jerseys rededicated themselves at the defensive end of the floor. Despite scoring a modest 13 points in the ensuing eight minutes of game time, the Lions accumulated a 63-55 lead with just over two minutes remaining in regulation. As the numbers clearly indicate, Purdue got stuck on 55 for eight whole minutes. That’s right: Penn State shut out Painter’s pupils for eight solid minutes, in the stretch run of a basketball game that meant everything to the Boilermakers.

That’s how far Penn State basketball has come this season. The Lions—with huge, step-up performances from guard Talor Battle (21 points, 9 assists) and forward Andrew Jones III (8 offensive rebounds)—would hold off Purdue in the final minute. Not surprisingly, PSU’s two heroes came together when their teammates needed it most. Battle fed Jones for the game-sealing bucket at the 25-second mark of regulation time, with only two seconds left on the shot clock. After coming oh-so-close to upsetting Wisconsin over the weekend, the Lions learned their lessons and made good against the Boilermakers. Now, PSU not only has a 2-1 record in league play; the Nittany Lions have a quality conference win that will serve them well come March.

It’s a new day for Penn State basketball. A gritty, defense-fueled win over the Big Ten team known for its defense will bring Nittany Lion fans to the Jordan Center in droves. Basketball junkies in Pennsylvania might have to throw a bash before this season’s through—they could find themselves partying like it’s 2001 in Happy Valley.

 

By Tom Kessler
BigTen-fans.com Ohio State Correspondent

 

 

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