The Aggies felt they stepped up their defense and intensity to come from behind to beat the Nittany Lions, 62-60, and in doing so improve to 11-0 on the season.
I think we wanted it more in the second half, said forward Antoine Wright, who matched teammate Acie Law for game-high scoring honors with 19 points. Law did him one better, though, tallying the game-winners on a pair of free throws with 11.4 seconds remaining.
The Nittany Lions, on the other hand, believed their own inept play particularly in the final 10 minutes caused them to come from ahead to lose, dipping to 6-7 heading into Wednesdays Big Ten opener against Michigan State at the BJC.
Its plain and simple, said junior forward Aaron Johnson, whose seventh double-double (16 points, 12 rebounds) led Penn State in both departments. With 10 minutes left, we just collapsed.
The more accurate account of the game, of course, can be found somewhere in the middle.
The crushing part from the Lions perspective is they played so well in the first half. A&M came in with a 10-0 record bolstered by mostly low Division I and even NAIA fodder. Further, this was the Aggies first game away from home, and it showed as State bashed it with a heaping helping of road rage early.
Johnson and fellow post player Travis Parker threw their weight around, scoring seemingly at will as the team went 14 of 22 from the floor in the first 20 minutes. The Lions also made all seven of their first-half free throws and when A&M dug down to stop the inside game knocked home 4 of 9 triples.
Offensively, the Aggies were off balance, managing a season-low 28 points (vs. Penn States 39) before the break. Foul trouble limited star freshman forward Joseph Jones to eight minutes and no points.
They basically exposed us and whipped us, said first-year A&M coach Billy Gillispie. This is our first road game, and [the players] werent thinking as well as they needed to be.
We just were way more intense, Johnson said of the first half. It wasnt a matter of strategy. It was a matter of intensity.
State ripped off the first six points of the second half, too, before the intensity began to fade. Up 45-28, the Lions became lax in the token 1-2-2, three-quarter-court pressure which was meant to slow the Aggies run-and-gun style.
A&M pounced, finding gaps for a trio of wide-open three-pointers. PSUs only bucket in the span was a Johnson layup, so the lead was down to 47-37 quickly. The run stretched to 15-2 in favor of the visitors, with Jones cutting the margin to 47-43 at the 13:39 mark.
Theyre a good basketball team, PSU coach DeChellis said. I told the guys, theyre gonna make a run.
Penn State regrouped for a moment before everything fell apart. Its 10 second-half turnovers led to 13 A&M points. Johnson scored with 10:44 left to boost the lead to 53-46, but the Lions got two more field goals the rest of the way, part of a 7-for-27 showing in the half.
You cant turn it over 10 times in a half and shoot 26 percent and expect to win, DeChellis said. ... It was a combination of turnovers and poor defense, and we didnt make any baskets.
Even the free-throw shooting suffered. After the Aggies finally tied it 58-58 on Laws falling 10-footer in the lane, Johnson missed two foul shots, part of a 7-of-15 team showing in the half.
Wright, a preseason All-Big 12 pick, took PSU freshman Geary Claxton one on one, scoring in the lane at 1:08 for A&Ms first lead (60-58) since midway through the opening half. Penn State countered, as Parkers miss was tipped out to Luber, who spotted backcourt mate Marlon Smith for a 15-footer to tie it (60-60) at 40.6.
Law came down, killed clock, and signaled his teammates to clear out so he could take Luber in isolation. He cut hard to the hole, and barreled into Johnson. But not before Luber hacked his arm. The official caught the early contact, and Law received a pair of free throws. Both were good at 11.4.
After an A&M timeout, Claxton inbounded to Luber, who motored up the floor. Smith popped free off a double screen just beyond the foul line. Luber hit him, and Smith fired.
The shot was long.
The game was over.
I think we played better defense in the second half, Gillispie said. We were able to pressure their guards a little bit, and I think they got tired at the end.
Not surprisingly, the Penn State camp had a different view.
I dont know about tired, DeChellis said. I think we made some questionable decisions.
PERSONNEL: Luber started his second straight game in place of Walker, who missed the previous outing with a case of the flu. DeChellis said Walker was healthy Sunday. The coach was not comfortable with the way Walker dealt with A&Ms pressure and gave him only 14 minutes.
Luber had his troubles. He was 2 of 7 from the floor and forced shots at a couple of key moments in the second half. But he had only three turnovers, decent numbers against a team that presses throughout.
KEY STAT: Penn State shot 63.6 percent from the floor in the first half and 25.9 percent in the second half.
EYE-OPENER: Claxton had a good game, with nine points and seven rebounds. More impressive were a pair of spectacular blocks and an jaw-dropping offensive rebound where he soared high about everyone else on the floor. One negative Sunday: four turnovers.
ED SAID: We have to go back to work and figure out how to win at the end of a game.
QUOTABLE: Im not impressed with who weve beaten. We havent beaten anybody. Im looking for that big win. Johnson, on PSUs six wins.
AND ANOTHER THING: Word out of States camp is that massive center John Kelly, who left the program at the end of the fall semester, is transferring to Iona. The Gaels are coached by Jeff Ruland, who was known for his bruising style in the NBA.