In the meantime, what was billed as Parker's final home game may not be that, at all. The Lions in all likelihood locked down an NIT bid with Saturday's win, which means they could well play at least one more game on campus. A postseason bid no matter where State ends up playing would be important for a program that has stumbled to four straight losing seasons and had won a total of six league games in the previous three years.
I wanted to be part of a team that turns this program around, Parker said afterward. And now I am.
As is his custom, third-year coach Ed DeChellis allowed his senior to deliver the pre-game pep talk in the locker room. Parker, a junior college transfer in only his second year in the program, took the occasion to say how much he cared for his teammates. As he repeated later, This is the closest team I've ever been on.
Which was something, considering the myriad transfers and overall selfish play that were staples of the previous four seasons as PSU transitioned from the Jerry Dunn era into the DeChellis regime. But Parker, who struggled with consistency into the middle of this season before settling into a groove that has seen him average 17.7 points over the last seven games, helped the Lions pull out of that funk.
I wanted him to play the way he is playing now, DeChellis said. So I kept pushing and pushing and pushing.
Claxton gives Parker a hug.
Saturday's win was yet another example of the team-first attitude that has risen from the ashes.
The day before the game, DeChellis went out of his way to praise Mohamed Hachad's effectiveness at the front of the Wildcats' 1-3-1 zone, and the 6-foot-5 senior showed why early on. He tipped a pass that led to a fastbreak basket to open the scoring. It was one of four turnovers Penn State had on its first seven possessions.
The Lions eventually got the hang of breaking the 1-3-1, though, and once they calmed down and attacked it with patience they controlled the rest of the first half. Great ball movement and good shot selection were the keys. Also important was steady play from point guard Ben Luber (five assists, one turnover). They made 7 of their first 8 field goal tries in forging a 21-16 lead.
Though State cooled from the field for the final 11 minutes of the half, it began to batter NU inside. Again, the team taking what the opponent was giving. The Lions went 13 of 15 from the stripe in the period with Parker and sophomore Geary Claxton both tallying nine points to carry a 35-25 edge into the locker room.
Bill Carmody's Princeton-style offense and zone defense don't exactly lend themselves to big comebacks, and there would be none in this game. A Parker triple helped PSU push the lead to 16 early in the second half. The Wildcats made a mild rally when Evan Seacat, who scored seven points in conference play coming in, came off the bench and went nuts, hitting three straight 3-pointers to slice it to 49-43 midway through the final period.
But Penn State gathered itself defensively and got a couple of bombs from its own deep threat off the pine, sophomore Mike Walker, to blow it open.
It was 68-53 when DeChellis called timeout with 44.1 seconds left in the game so he could pull his veteran. And as Parker paced off the floor wearing a huge smile, the student section erupted into a chant of, Thank you .. Travis!
With time winding down in the game, the chant of NIT NIT began. Parker could not help but hear.
And wonder if his BJC curtain call might just lead to an encore.
If it's not [the final home game], that would be even better, Parker said.
An athletic department source said the NIT has already made very preliminary inquiries about PSU playing host to a first-round tournament game. Though the university is also hosting an NCAA women's subregional, it is confident it can easily accommodate the NIT. DeChellis wanted no part of the NIT talk in his postgame press conference, saying his team had not wrapped up anything and I keep telling them the highlight is yet to come.
Penn State was 20 of 26 from the line; Northwestern 0-3. But Carmody did not complain. They were the aggressive team. They have guys banging in there. A lot of my guys like open space; the prairie guys.
Luber had a turnover on PSU's second possession, leading to Mohamed's breakaway score. But he did not have a turnover the rest of the game. That 1-3-1 zone of ours has bothered a lot of people, but it hasn't bothered him, Carmody said. Luber took an ill-advised shot late in Wednesday's loss at Indiana, but DeChellis said the junior showed no signs of a lasting impact from the mistake. I thought he was solid with the basketball.
The Lions now stand in eighth place in the Big Ten, just ahead of 5-8 Minnesota. The Gophers are at Wisconsin Sunday. Indiana (6-7) is in seventh place and plays host to Michigan State Sunday.
Penn State wraps the regular season Wednesday at Iowa in a game that tips at 8 p.m. It will be carried live on WPSU Channel 4.