Nittany Lions Can't Hold On

Just before 11 a.m. Friday, Big Ten champion Ohio State learned that it would in fact be eligible for the NCAA tournament this year. An hour later, the Buckeyes tipped off their quarterfinal conference tourney game against Penn State, and had to scramble like mad to stay afloat in Indianapolis.

Top-seeded OSU overcame a 12-point second-half deficit with a series of long-range bombs to beat the eighth-seeded Nittany Lions, 63-56, at Conseco Fieldhouse. Penn State, which suffered through a horrid dry spell in the game's final five minutes, capped its regular season at 15-14 overall but will more than likely see action in the NIT next week.

“For 35 minutes, we were in pretty good shape,” third-year PSU coach Ed DeChellis said. “… I thought we played a pretty good basketball game, we just came up a little short.”

The upstart Buckeyes (24-4) had been nervous all season as they awaited the results of the two-year NCAA investigation focused primarily on wrongs committed under former coach Jim O'Brien. OSU had a self-imposed ban on postseason play a year ago, and hoped against hope that the NCAA would allow it to play in the national tournament this year.

Which is exactly what the NCAA did, putting the entire athletic department on three years probation and requiring Ohio State to pay back past money earned at the tournament, but clearing this year's version of the Buckeyes for the Big Dance.

“It's the best news we've had in a long time,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. But his team hardly looked like it just received a reprieve from the executioner's axe.

Having enjoyed a bye on the first day of the tournament, Ohio State was not crisp early in this one, missing its first five shots as Penn State built a 7-0 lead. The No. 8 Buckeyes struggled from the arc coming into the tournament, and that continued early Friday, as they missed their first seven 3-point tries before Jamar Butler finally made one to tie it at 15-15 with 6:21 left before the break.

But Penn State didn't panic. Turnovers had been a huge problem for the Lions in two earlier losses to the Buckeyes, including 20 in the 104-69 blowout in Columbus Jan. 5. But they had only three miscues in the first half Friday and only one of those led to an OSU bucket.

Thanks to freshman Jamelle Cornley's solid work in the paint (12 points) and Geary Claxton's effort on the boards (seven rebounds despite picking up two quick fouls) the Nittany Lions took a 27-24 edge into the locker room.

“We were playing on our heels a little bit and reacting to what they were doing rather than being the aggressor,” said OSU forward Terence Dials, who had 13 points and 10 boards for the game.

Penn State was strong early in the second half, and went up 42-30 when Mike Walker made a top-of-the-key 3-pointer with just over 13 minutes left. From there, however, the Buckeyes took control. They made 8 of 18 triples in the final 20 minutes, and fittingly took their first lead (50-49) on a Butler trey with just under six minutes to go.

Doing much of the damage during the run was Ron Lewis, who was 4 of 7 from the arc and scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half. Penn State, which went 3-of-17 from the arc in the game, managed six points the rest of the way as OSU slowly pulled away.

“We just couldn't make a shot at a critical time and Ron Lewis made some big shots against us,” DeChellis said. “That's the difference in the game.”

“We had a lot of adrenaline and we were ready to play,” added Claxton. “But the shots weren't falling. Ohio State hit some big shots with the threes.”

Despite the team struggles of the final few minutes, Cornley and Claxton both came through with monster games, the former tallying 18 points and the latter finishing with 12 points and 12 boards.

And aside from the poor shooting, Penn State played well overall as a team, holding its own on the glass, committing only six turnovers and generating eight steals. Asked to make a case for the NIT to pick the Nittany Lions, DeChellis said their performance Friday spoke for itself.

“I think we're a very worthy team,” he said. “That's the eighth-ranked team in the country and the No. 1 team in the conference, and I think we saw a pretty good game out there.”

NOTES:

• State's staring guard, Ben Luber and David Jackson, score a total of four points. But Luber did have nine assists against only one turnover.

• The Nittany Lions will fly back from Indy Saturday morning.

• The NIT will announce its selections at 9 p.m. Sunday.

Complete game stats.

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