Penn State keeps finding new and unusual ways to lose close games in the Big Ten. Against Michigan State in East Lansing Wednesday, second-half turnovers proved to be the Nittany Lions' undoing in a 66-60 defeat.
PSU is now 0-6 in conference play, matching last season's slump at the outset of league action. That's the bad news. The good news is the Lions are nowhere near the 14-game skid they endured to open the B1G slate in 2012-13.
After winning a record 12 games (and losing just one) in non-conference play, Penn State is now 12-7 overall and, as noted, in the same deep early Big Ten chasm it was last winter. The Spartans, who look like one of the worst groups of Tom Izzo's long tenure, are 13-6 and 4-2.
The Lions were only in it in the second half because B1G leading scorer D.J. Newbill once again went off, this time for a game-high 27 points. But, as much attention as a late technical from frustrated coach Pat Chambers is bound to get, the second-half turnovers were the real killer.
First the technical.
The score was knotted at 51-51 when Newbill canned a pair of free throws with 4:51 remaining. But then the Lions were hit with three dicey fouls in the span of 47 seconds, including a clearly poor call (to anyone watching on TV) on which guard Lion Shep Garner was whistled for holding Denzel Valentine far away from the ball.
Valentine then hit a jumper to make it 53-51, and when PSU tried to respond, center Jordan Dickerson was slapped with an offensive foul while trying to screen for Newbill. A media timeout followed the call, and during it Chambers went ballistic on the offcials.
Valentine made one of the two free throws resulting from the tech with 3:41 remaining to make it 54-51. Then the Lions lost Bryn Forbes defensively and the Spartan guard drilled a triple to boost the lead to 57-51 with 3:25 showing.
Now the turnovers.
The last of PSU's 10 second-half miscues came right after the aforementioned MSU 3-pointer, when Newbill lost the ball and the Spartans got a breakaway layup from Travis Trice to make it 59-51 and just about end it.
Seven of the nine previous second-half turnovers came when the Nittany Lions were either in position to tie the game or take the lead. Two of those came when the contest was tied, which was important considering PSU never did lead in the game.
Penn State began the game without a center on the floor for the first time all season.
The three-guard look featured Newbill, the freshman Garner and sophomore Geno Thorpe, along with veteran forwards Brandon Taylor and Ross Travis. Thorpe got the nod in place of the center platoon of Donovon Jack/Dickerson.
It didn't really help.
The Lions started the game 1 of 10 from the floor, with the only bucket coming on a Thorpe steal and uncontested dunk. They were also 0 of 6 from the arc and 0 of 2 from the line.
And Newbill and Taylor combined for 18 points in the first half. The other three starters combined for two points on 1-of-6 shooting.
That said, neither Dickerson nor Jack made a field goal in the game (in a combined 21 minutes). They had more total fouls (six) than points (four) or rebounds (two).
By the way, Newbill has now started 84 straight games (which equates to every game of his PSU career since transferring in from Southern Mississippi). The next closest streak on the team belongs to Taylor, who has gotten the nod in 26 in a row.
Penn State's horrendous free-throw shooting was once again an issue. The Lions were 13 of 22 in the game, which translates to 59.1 percent. Newbill missed both ends of a one-and-one down four (64-60) with 18 seconds remaining, but he surely was tired from again having to carry the team.
Taylor again disappeared in the second half. He scored one point in the final 20 minutes.
Travis had five rebounds in the game, moving him past Carver Clinton into seventh on Penn State's all-time list with 736.
Newbill (1,498) became only the ninth player in school history to pass the 1,500-point mark. He now has 1,525 in his Lion career, the most ever by a three-year player.
The Nittany Lions try to lose the collar when Rutgers visits the Jordan Center for a noon tip Saturday. The game will be carried by ESPNU. The Scarlet Knights beat PSU 50-46 in Piscataway Jan. 13.