Penn State dominated the final 6:20 of its game against Wisconsin at the Jordan Center Thursday night, outscoring the Badgers 28-14 at one point. The Nittany Lions drained 3-pointers, got to the free throw line, rebounded with abandon and clamped down on defense.
It rated as one of their better stretches of the Big Ten season. Unfortunately for fifth-year head coach Pat Chambers, it was too little, too late.
You see, PSU spent most of the evening in an offensive malaise, with leading scorer Brandon Taylor unable to shake free for open looks. And the Nittany Lions played awful defense just long enough early in the second half to allow rebuilding, Bo Ryan-less UW to forge a lead that proved to be insurmountable.
In spite of State’s crazy late rally.
The final was 66-60, as the Lions failed to capitalize on a down year for the Badgers and lost their eighth straight game in the series. PSU is now 11-9 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten.
“It’s definitely tough to come back on a good team like that because you know they are never going to make it that easy,” said Taylor, who scored all of his team-high 13 points in the final 13 minutes. “I think we did a good job fighting back, but we took that punch and it was maybe too much to come back from.”
To say this is a “good” Wisconsin team is a stretch. Under interim head coach Greg Gard, the Badgers had lost four of five to start conference play. But they improved to 11-9 and 3-4 with this win.
“All in all I would have liked to close out the game in a prettier fashion,” said Gard, who replaced the retired Ryan in December. “Having been in this league for a long time, we have had some squeakers in here. However, to be able to get on the road and get a win in this league, you will take it any way you can get it.”
SPEAKING OF CLOSE CALLS
Wisconsin had won seven straight in the series, but the last three victories at the BJC had been by an average of just more than five points. All of those Badger teams were ranked.
Not this one. Nevertheless, UW controlled things much of the night Thursday, leading by nine (27-18) at the break before going on an 11-3 run to gain some breathing room early in the second half.
The Nittany Lion defense, which had played well to that point, seemed to fall asleep during the UW spurt.
“They jumped us the first couple of minutes. We didn’t score on the first couple possessions and they did,” Chambers said. “… We were deflated."
To its credit, PSU did not roll over. Taylor hit his first basket of the night with 13:08 remaining, cutting the UW lead to 40-25. But the Lions still trailed 49-32 at 7:10 of the second half before really kicking the rally into high gear.
Taylor paced the charge that saw the lead drop to as narrow as 63-60 with half a minute to go when backup guard Devon Foster bombed in the second of his two 3-pointers.
But UW freshman forward Ethan Happ hit three of four free throws from there to finish with a game-high 20 points and account for the final.
“There is no doubt that I am proud of the fight,” Chambers said. “But I am just disappointed because I do not know where we were for 32 minutes.”
SLIPPING DOWN THE LADDER
This loss is particularly difficult for Penn State for a couple of reasons.
First, as you check out the upcoming schedule, there do not appear to be any opponents who are nearly as vulnerable as the Badgers were. PSU is at Ohio State Monday, faces Michigan at Madison Square Garden next Saturday, is at Iowa Feb. 3 and so on and so on.
State won’t be favored in a game until it visits a horrible Rutgers outfit Feb. 20, or nearly a month from now.
Second, PSU and UW were right in the same area in the conference standings. Any chance the Lions had of starting to climb those standings would have required a win over the Badgers.
For his part, Chambers insisted he does not look at such big-picture issues in the course of a season.
“I can’t get caught up in where everyone is in the standings,” he said. “That’s never been my M.O.”
Guard Shep Garner played 33 minutes and scored 10 points despite still dealing with a stomach bug that hit him earlier in the week. He was only 2 of 7 from the floor and did not attempt a 3-pointer.
Forward Donovon Jack left the game in the second half with an unspecified back injury. He had three points and three rebounds in 13 minutes.
BY THE NUMBERS
• Wisconsin had 13 offensive rebounds but only turned them into eight second-chance points.
• Payton Banks (11 points) and Foster (10) were also in double for the Lions.
• Center Julian Moore had eight points and 10 rebounds for PSU.
• Badger veteran Nigel Hayes had 15 points and did solid defensive work on Taylor for most of the night.
• Penn State took only 16 shots in the first half, making five. The Lions had nine turnovers in the half.
• UW has seven steals in the game.
The Nittany Lions have the weekend off before playing a rare (for them) Big Ten Monday night game at Ohio State. The action tips at 7 p.m. and can be seen on BTN.