Prior to a game against Northwestern at the Jordan Center Thursday, Penn State said goodbye to its four-member senior class during a Senior Night ceremony.
But the “good bye” the Nittany Lions had a chance to secure remained elusive, as the Wildcats unceremoniously slapped around PSU through the evening’s first 23 minutes before turning back a rally and holding on for a 71-61 victory.
The loss prevented PSU from locking down its first-ever opening-day bye in the 19-year history of next week’s Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. The positive on that front, though, is that the Lions can still get it done with a win over Illinois at the BJC Sunday (noon, BTN).
State is now 15-15 on the season and 6-11 in the Big Ten, tied with Nebraska for 10th place. NU improved to 19-11 and 7-10 and is now in sole possession of ninth place. Only the top 10 spots earn byes.
PSU can finish no worse than 10th in the B1G with a win over Illinois. With a loss, State will not get a tournament bye.
“It was an emotional night for Senior Night,” said senior Brandon Taylor who led PSU with 17 points. “Everyone wants to play good and have their best game. But we still have another (regular-season) game. We’re not going to hang our heads now. We have one more game and then the Big Ten Tournament.”
As an aside, PSU decided to honor the seniors Thursday (as opposed to Sunday) because spring break begins Saturday. And that means the students will not be on campus this weekend.
Northwestern coach Chris Collins suggested after the game that playing on PSU’s Senior Night may have been an advantage for his team, which lost the previous matchup in Evanston Jan. 10 (71-62).
“Senior Nights can be tough because there’s so much emotion,” he said. “… Sometimes you get a little bit out of whack emotionally. I’m not saying that’s what happened with them.”
PSU coach Pat Chambers did not say that, either — he said the Lions were a lot out of whack after Taylor, forward Donovon Jack, guard Devin Foster and center Jordan Dickerson were honored.
“I have a love-hate relationship with Senior Night,” Chambers said. “Just too emotional. I felt like the first 20 minutes, that’s the way we played. Too many emotions, too many, ‘This is it, what’s the next chapter?’”
THE REAL ISSUE
As much as emotions may have been a factor, there was a much bigger problem for the Lions. Namely, Northwestern solved the extended zone PSU used so effectively in Evanston.
Collins admitted to being surprised by the zone in the previous meeting and that it pushed his shooters out beyond NBA 3-point range. They made only 3 of 26 triples that day.
Thursday was much different, especially in the first half.
The Wildcats got an 8-of-11 shooting performance from guard Tre Demps in the opening 20 minutes, which included a 3-of-5 showing from the arc and one play where he drove the lane untouched for a dunk.
As a team, NU shot 63 percent from the floor and 54.5 percent from the arc in the first half, and led 42-27 at the break. The lead ballooned to 47-27 early in the second half.
“We really dissected the last game and talked about getting to our spots on the floor and getting our shots at the (college) 3-point line,” Collins said.
COMEBACK NOT ENOUGH
After falling behind by 20, PSU finally began to play with some purpose and make a few shots of its own.
A 24-8 run cut the lead to 55-51 when Shep Garner hit a pair of free throws with 5:57 left. But as has been the case all season -- and especially in the conference -- PSU just doesn’t score consistently enough to completely overcome huge deficits.
And that was the case again Thursday. The Lions got two points in the next three minutes as NU pulled away for good.
“We just spotted them too big of a lead when it comes down to it,” Chambers said. “We had a valiant comeback, but that’s too many points to overcome.”
• Outside of Taylor, the other seniors combined for eight points.
• Garner played 39 minutes.
• Rookie guard Josh Reaves played well on both ends during the rally. He finished with 11 points, five assists, four rebounds and three steals.
• A senior himself, Demps led Northwestern with 23. Fellow guard Bryant McIntosh had 17.