Lions Can't Hack it vs. Gophers

Penn State fails to adjust to a tightly officiated game in falling at home to Minnesota. The Lions are now 1-5 in the Big Ten.

Lined up man-for-man against the rest of the Big Ten, rebuilding Penn State doesn't measure up favorably to anyone. So to have a chance of winning in the conference, the Nittany Lions must turn games into street fights, and count on opponents cracking under the uncomfortable pressure of the frays.

Though seriously undersized and not exactly brimming with explosive athletes, PSU entered Sunday afternoon's game against Minnesota at the Jordan Center tied for first in the conference in offensive rebounding (12.8 per game), and ranked third in rebounding margin (+3.8 per) and fourth in steals (7.2 per). We're talking about league-only stats, not numbers padded by the non-conference slate.

The Lions also entered the game at 1-4 in the conference, and tied with the Gophers and Nebraska for last place. So as scrappy as they'd been, they still didn't have all that much to show for it -- their best games being a surprising 20-point beat-down of Purdue and a tight 88-82 loss to then-No. 12 Indiana.

They had even less to show for it when the buzzer sounded Sunday. Penn State's knock-down, drag-out style was waylaid by an officiating crew with itchy whistles (both ways), Minnesota's sizzling shooting and its own poor defense -- in no particular order.

The final was 80-66 as PSU fell to 9-10 on the season and 1-5 in the Big Ten. It was a six-point game with 3:35 left before Tubby Smith's team (14-5, 2-4) pulled away.

The referees called a total of 52 fouls in the game, by far the most in a Nittany Lion outing this year. The teams combined to attempt 72 free throws. State was hit with two intentional foul calls in the second half, leading to a total of nine Gopher points.

Penn State coach Pat Chambers' thoughts on those numbers?

“The refs had nothing to do with (the outcome) of this game,” Chambers snorted. “If you don't put yourself in that position and (if you) start the game playing harder and doing the little things, then you take the officiating out of the game.

“I don't even want to talk about the officiating,” he added. “It's all about us.”

Added Cammeron Woodyard, who scored a career-high 22 points off the bench for the Lions: “The referees are part of the game. You have to adapt.”

Penn State could not do that in this game. Trailing 37-34 early in the second half, Nittany Lion guard Matt Glover grabbed a defensive rebound and became tangled with Gopher guard Joe Coleman.

The whistle blew. Following a lengthy delay, the official told Chambers Glover had thrown an elbow at Coleman, and that it was an intentional foul.

Coleman made two free throws and Minnesota kept possession. The Gophers turned that into a Rodney Williams dunk to push the lead to 41-33.

It would grow into double figures before Penn State chipped away. The Lions trailed 46-41 when Williams got loose on a break midway through the half. PSU rookie Ross Travis fouled him, and this one was called flagrant, too.

“Playing hard, but reckless,” Chambers said. “Those were pivotal points in the game. … That's what (the officials) saw. They made the right calls. We have to be smarter.”

Williams made two free throws and the Gophers kept possession. They turned this one into a 3-pointer by Austin Hollis. The lead was 51-41 with 10:33 left.

“They really were aggressive and physical,” Smith said of the Lions. “I thought our guys played with a lot of poise and savvy.”

Penn State made one last push, cutting the lead to 62-57 with 4:10 showing, but didn't have the legs to get all the way back. PSU fell apart down the stretch as Minnesota won going away.

As ugly as the loss turned out to be, the Lions did make their share of hustle plays. Their abysmal shooting (30 percent) was offset by the fact that they rebounded 17 of their 42 misses. They also forced 17 turnovers and had 11 steals.

Of course, Chambers was quick to point out the downside to the turnover numbers. Because of all the lost possessions, Minnesota attempted only 38 shots in the game (to State's 60) and yet managed to make 21 one of them.

“You get 17 turnovers but they're still shooting in the 50s (percentage-wise),” Chambers said. “So you're either turning them over or they're scoring.”

Penn State's defense was flat-out lousy at times, too. Coleman, a freshman starting his first game of the year, scored at will inside and out. He finished with 23 points, or 19 above his season average. As a group, the Gopher starters made 18 of 7 shots.

Offensively, the Lions struggled to convert buckets. Minnesota had seven blocks, including five by center Ralph Sampson III.

Tim Frazier scored 20 points but did it on 5-of-15 shooting. Jermaine Marshall was 4 of 19 for a dozen points. Three-point ace Billy Oliver has effectively been solved by opposing defenses, as he was held to just two shots in this game (both missed) by the lanky Williams.

In other words, as ticky-tack as the officiating might have been, Chambers and his staff have much more important things to worry about as the Lions carry a three-game losing streak into what figures to be a difficult stretch of games (home against Illinois then on the road vs. Indiana and Ohio State).

“I've got to do a better job,” Chambers said. “I'm disappointed with our effort. That's on me. I've gotta do a better job of getting these guys ready to play. We looked like we were in slow motion out there.”


• Freshman guard Trey Lewis missed the game with what Chambers called a lower back injury.

• Woodyard's previous career scoring high was 14 points.

• Penn State centers Jon Graham and Sasa Borovnjak combined to go 1 of 5 from the field.

• Thursday's home game with Illinois tips at 9 p.m. and can be seen on ESPN2.


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