Rudel Column: Hoop Woes Continue

Shortly before tipoff Saturday afternoon at the Jordan Center, Penn State coach Ed DeChellis was informed starting guard Ben Luber had been vomiting in the restroom. <P>DeChellis, presiding over a program crippled by injuries and defections for two years, could only sigh.

“We’ll see what else we can come up with,” he said of the Nittany Lions’ hard luck.

Luber responded with an effort DeChellis called “outstanding,” scoring 13 points, but he and his teammates lost their fourth Big Ten game in as many starts, falling 66-62 to Michigan.

Afterward, it was announced fellow sophomore starting guard Marlon Smith, last year’s team MVP, would miss the remainder of the season with a blood-related condition that hospitalized him for a week.

Even without Smith, the PSU camp, stung from three straight conference-opening losses by an average of 23.6 points, felt Michigan was a beatable opponent, particularly at home.

“I thought we had a great chance to win today,” said forward Travis Parker, whose 19 points led four Nits in double figures. “We should have won today.”

Though Michigan came in 11-5 and 2-0 in the league, including a win at Iowa, these are not the Maize and Blue days of Chris Webber and Jalen Rose.

“We’ve all got our problems. We just have to fight through them,” DeChellis said. “Michigan has guys banged up, too.”

Wolverines coach Tommy Amaker admitted as much, calling his frontline “depleted.”

“We had to battle through to get this win,” he said. “I told our players we didn’t play as well as we’d like, but you give them [PSU] credit for that. They played hard and tough. But I was glad to see we found a way.”

After trailing for the first 10 minutes, Michigan kept the Lions at an arm’s length almost throughout. State’s defense limited Michigan guards Daniel Horton and Dion Harris, who combined for 18 points in the first half, to a mere second-half bucket.

“It’s hard to think we could win on the road with those guys scoring like that in the second half,” Amaker said.

Penn State tied it at 42 with 9:28 left before the Wolverines regained control and survived a mini-scare when the Lions pulled as close as 59-57 and awakened their crowd with 1:04 left.

“We creeped back into things and then we’d make turnovers,” DeChellis said.

In total, 16 of them. That offset the upside of a Lion performance that saw Penn State pound the Wolverines on the glass, 40-29, and outshoot them from the foul line 29-13. With both teams clanking away at a 40 percent rate from the floor, the Lions’ lost possessions, doubling Michigan’s eight turnovers, were a big part of the difference.

“It seemed to me we had so many balls just roll around and not go in or we’d just miss a steal,” DeChellis said. “But that’s what happens when you’re struggling.”

And clearly the Lions are struggling. At 6-11 overall, they’re in danger of their fourth consecutive single-digit win season and second straight under DeChellis, who took over in 2003 for Jerry Dunn.

“Somewhere,” DeChellis said, “we have to win a game.”

It would help fight off growing discouragement.

“Things are rough right now,” said talented freshman Geary Claxton, one of the Lions’ bright spots with 13 points, six offensive rebounds, three blocked shots and two dunks. “But we just have to keep playing.”

The Lions are off until Saturday when Northwestern, perhaps PSU’s only basketball peer in the league, comes calling.

In the meantime, DeChellis will hit the road in desperate search for some additional reinforcements, especially up front as Parker and Aaron Johnson will graduate after the 2006 season.

He’ll do so with his sense of humor starting to be taxed.

The midweek open date, he said, means, “you get to be miserable for a whole week and not just four-five days.”

Neil Rudel is the sports editor of the Altoona Mirror. He also contributes to FightOnState.com.

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