Penn State coach Pat Chambers spent the last two months wondering what might happen if a few shots finally fell for his struggling team. He got the answer Wednesday night, as the Nittany Lions at long last found their collective stroke at the Jordan Center.
The result was a stunning 84-78 upset of No. 4 Michigan, the highest-ranked team PSU has ever beaten at the BJC. This after starting the Big Ten season with a team-record 14 consecutive losses, which left many just assuming the Lions were doomed for their first conference O-fer.
Words can't express how I feel right now, a hoarse Chambers said afterward. It's really about these kids. We were on a 14-game losing streak, and they still came with a great approach every day. They didn't lose the fight. They didn't lose the fire. I kept saying we were close. I knew we were going to earn one somewhere down the line.
The end of the frustrating line was Wednesday, as PSU (9-18, 1-14) overcame a 15-point deficit midway through the second half to storm back for its first victory of 2013. Fans stormed the floor as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
We were enjoying it, man, said guard D.J. Newbill, who had 17 points and five assists for the Lions. Our hard work, we feel like it paid off. We also wanted to help our fans be proud, man. They've been coming out and supporting us all year and we were happy to get them something to keep them cheering and supporting us.
There was plenty to cheer in the tense final minutes of this one. Seemingly out of it after Michigan (23-5, 10-5) and All-American candidate guard Trey Burke blasted out of the gate in the second half and built the huge lead, the Lions climbed back in because they were killing it from long range. They made 10 of 20 3-pointers on the evening, including a 6-of-10 effort from guard Jermaine Marshall (who finished with a game-high 25 points).
If we would have come out on the bottom of this one, I don't know what I would have told you because we finally made some shots, said Chambers, who preached to the media throughout the slump that the shots were bound to fall at some point.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, made only 5 of 20 triples.
And when Penn State was not filling it up from long range, it was getting things done at the foul line. The Lions entered the game having attempted fewer free throws than their opponents had made in Big Ten play. On this night, State had more makes (20 to 13) and attempts (27-20) than Michigan.
Finally, when it mattered most, Penn State got stingy on defense.
They beat us fair and square, and in the last 10 minutes really outplayed us, U-M coach John Beilein said. Their guys hit shots they can hit. They made their foul shots, we did not. And you just don't win when you played like we did in those last 10 minutes.
Down 15 (66-51) after Wolverine forward Jon Hortford's dunk with 10:39 remaining, the Lions rallied off the canvas behind Marshall's bombs and gritty play overall. Senior guard Nick Colella smartly drew a foul on a 3-point try and made all three free throws. Forward Ross Travis was hammered in the lane and made a couple of freebies.
And yet State still trailed by nine (72-63) before Marshall hit a triple with 7:02 showing. But when that shot fell, it was kind of like the moment in a Rocky film where the hero buckles an opponent with a hard body shot. Still ahead 74-66 after Tim Hardaway Jr. countered with a jumper, Michigan nevertheless looked rattled.
In quick order, Newbill hit a 3-pointer, Travis had a steal and score and Marshall hit a triple. The score was tied 74-74 with 4:53 to go. Following a Burke turnover, Marshall made two free throws and Penn State would not trail the rest of the way.
The ball finally bounced our way, Chambers said. Trey Burke strips D.J. at midcourt and drop-kicks it out of bounds. That's stuff we usually do.
Up 79-78 with 1:18 to go, Chambers called timeout. He drew up a play for Marshall, who went off a screen and weaved his way to the basket for a layup and 81-78 lead at 1:06.
Coach put the ball in my hands, he had trust in me, Marshall said. Fortunately the ball rolled around the rim and went down.
Penn State played tough defense the rest of the way and -- in a fitting twist if there ever was one -- the team's lone seniors iced the game at the foul line on Senior Night. Colella hit one of two. Then forward Sasa Borovnjak hit a pair to account for the final score.
As the fans rushed the floor after the game, Chambers made a beeline to shake hands with Beilein -- who is know as one of the classiest coaches in the game. Then Chambers turned around to look at the mayhem on the court.
I wanted to see our team, he said. And I wanted them to be in that moment. Because those moments don't come very often.
Chambers thanked Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien for giving the team a pep talk this week.
Travis finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds despite missing a short amount of time with a cramp.
This marks only the third time PSU has beaten a team ranked No. 4 or higher. All have happened since 2000.
Hardaway (19) and Burke (18) paced Michigan.
Penn State is at Minnesota for a 3 p.m. tip Saturday. The unranked Golden Gophers are fresh off an upset of No. 1 Indiana.