Lions Hold off Late Flurry

In the middle of a six-game shooting slump that saw him make 4 of 19 3-pointers, Penn State freshman guard Mike Walker did what he always does when things aren’t going well: Work.

Ed DeChellis Audio (WMV)

Box Score

Walker spent untold early-morning hours in the Nittany Lions’ practice gym, knocking down anywhere from 300 to 350 jumpers per day. Which explains why he burst out of his funk in fine fashion at the Bryce Jordan Center Saturday, scoring 15 points — including the game-winning triple with 12.6 seconds remaining — as Penn State beat Northwestern, 65-62.

“I’ve been in there a lot,” Walker said of his time in the practice gym. “It’s so rewarding for it to pay off.”

For the player and his team. The victory — much more harrowing than it needed to be — cracked a five-game PSU skid and gave Coach Ed DeChellis his first win in the Big Ten this season. The Lions are now 7-11 overall and 1-4 in the league.

“We haven’t enjoyed this [feeling] for a long, long time,” DeChellis said.

And they almost didn’t experience it Saturday. Penn State overcame a sluggish start to seize control early in the second half. The Wildcats (8-9, 1-4) were without starting center and Duke transfer Mike Thompson, a 6-foot-10, 250-pounder who was suspended for missing class.

Without him, NU knew it couldn’t match Penn State on the boards, so it didn’t bother trying. As a team, the Wildcats were outrebounded by Lion forward Aaron Johnson (21-17). They had more assists (19) than rebounds.

The one thing Northwestern did well in the paint was clamp down on Johnson, State’s leading scorer. Double- and triple-teamed constantly, he kept kicking out. And for once the Lion shooters — particularly Walker and fellow frosh Danny Morrissey — responded.

Morrissey, replaced in the starting lineup by Walker due to a sore shoulder, had made only 2 of his previous 16 3-pointers coming in. On this night, he went 4 of 6 from long range. Walker was 5 of 9.

“For us to be successful, our freshmen have to score points,” DeChellis said.

“I call them the Let it Rain Brothers,” Johnson said, “because they be lettin’ it rain all day. They were cashing in today. When they do that, they’re hard to stop.”

Back-to-back Morrissey and Walker triples, followed by Travis Parker’s 17-footer, gave Penn State a 59-48 lead with 4:22 left. Then the Wildcats began pressing all over, and the Nittany Lions panicked.

With just over a minute to go — after his blown alley-oop pass to Geary Claxton led to an NU breakaway — Walker tried to beat the shot clock by forcing a bomb. The Wildcats rebounded and whipped it to a streaking Davor Duvancic, whose layup made it 60-58. On the next possession, with the shot clock about to expire again, Walker faked a drive and pulled up from the right wing.

The three-ball, over Evan Seacat, ripped the net.

“That was one of the biggest shots I ever hit,” Walker explained.

State was up 63-58 with 12.6 showing, but it wasn’t quite over. Duvancic scored on an inbound play under his own basket, and Walker was quickly fouled. Since the Lions were not in the bonus, they had to inbound again. Claxton’s pass was swiped by Michael Jenkins, leading to another Duvancic bucket.

This one made it 63-62 with 3.2 seconds to go. Parker was quickly fouled, and made both ends to account for the final score. Claxton intercepted NU’s long inbound pass and the game was over.

DeChellis joked that he turned the play-calling over to assistant Kurt Kanaskie during the wild final minute. On a more serious note, he said, “I feel badly we played so horribly down the stretch.”

Then he added, “It’s all about learning for this team, especially the young kids. I’m very, very happy for them.”

Guys like Walker.

“It felt like it’s been a year since we won,” the rookie said.

SHORT SHOTS

ED SAID: DeChellis thanked the crowd — listed at 8,207 but probably half that — for braving the snow storm to attend the game. “I know it’s a horrible day today. I thought our students came out in great numbers this afternoon. We had people in the stands, and I didn’t know what to expect. I really want to thank all those who came out today and braved the weather.”

QUOTABLE: Johnson on the win: “It’s like having a day off in school. It’s great.”

KEY STAT: The Wildcats turned PSU’s 15 turnovers into 24 points. They had 11 steals. It would not have been a close game if not for those numbers.

KEY STAT 2: True freshmen — Claxton (13), Morrissey (16) and Walker (15) — accounted for 44 of PSU’s 65 points. Throw in Parker (13), a juco transfer who was not on the roster last season, and 57 of the 65 were scored by newcomers.

PERSONNEL: DeChellis ran Walker at the point for the final 10 minutes of the game instead of starter Ben Luber. He stuck with the rookie even when things go hairy late. “You have to learn how to win,” the coach said.

FINAL THOUGHT: Has the Big Ten already slated one of next year’s meetings between the Wildcats and Nittany Lions for an espn2, 4 p.m. Saturday showing?

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