We dodged another bullet, Nittany Lion coach Ed DeChellis said after his team blew an 11-point lead midway through the second half only to hang on by the thinnest margin while improving to 6-2. We have to grow up and learn from our mistakes.
This was nearly State's second home disaster against an America East team; the first, obviously, was a 59-51 loss to Stony Brook Nov. 17.
Lion forward Geary Claxton missed that game. Luckily for DeChellis, the 6-foot-5 junior played against Hartford, finishing with a game-high 16 points and 10 rebounds (eight offensive).
And Penn State needed every ounce of that effort after wasting a 49-38 lead with 9:22 go. The Hawks pressed most of the second half, and though hardly the most athletic bunch PSU will face this season, they capitalized on one Lion mistake after another.
Over the next five minutes, Penn State had four turnovers and forced at least as many shots. Usually steady guard Danny Morrissey was completely off his game, with two miscues in that span and five in the game. One of his turnovers was an alley-oop attempt for Claxton that flew three feet over his head.
State also absorbed some physical damage during its dry spell, as power forward Jamelle Cornley and shooting guard David Jackson both twisted ankles within seconds of one another and were forced to leave the floor for good.
Meanwhile, guard Joe Zeglinski paced the Hawks during the run, and his uncontested drive at 4:23 tied it 52-52.
We just didn't attack their press very well, said senior point guard Ben Luber, who had a good floor game with six assists and two turnovers. We were too passive. We have to learn from that.
Cornley's injury forced DeChellis to lean heavily on 6-10 backup Milos Bogetic, and the sophomore's season-long struggles continued at a critical moment. Up 56-55 after Zeglinski missed a pair of free throws, Luber was long on a shot for Penn State and Bogetic grabbed the rebound with 33 seconds left.
Rather than kick it out to work more clock — forcing Hartford to foul because the shot clock was off — Bogetic faked robotically before attempting a shot that was long. Alex Zimnickas cleared the rebound for the Hawks with less than half a minute left, giving them a chance for victory.
With nothing happening offensively, thanks in part to Claxton's aggressive play, first-year Hartford coach Dan Leibovitz called timeout with 12 seconds showing. He hoped to get some action flowing toward the basket. But PSU still had a foul to give and Claxton and company played physical defense to keep Hartford out near the arc.
They just strong guys, Leibovitz said. They're hitting the weights up here pretty good.
Zeglinski forced a 3-pointer with five seconds left that was short. Michael Turner came up with rebound, but the 6-5 guard found himself directly beneath Bogetic, who stood still with his hands high over Turner.
The Serbian wall before him simply too massive, Turner froze. He did not attempt a shot before time expired and Penn State came away with a win that left more than a few fans scratching their heads on the way out the door.
A certain head coach was befuddled, too. In his post-game press conference, DeChellis used a series of phrases that more than indicated his disappointment: We're going to treat this as a loss. I'm not happy with where we're at. I just don't think we're playing very well.
Or, in short, We haven't played well with the lead at any stretch this year, and that's frustrating.
DeChellis said he won't know the extent of the ankle injuries to Cornley and Jackson until Thursday at the earliest. The former was not able to put his sneaker back on after a preliminary examination, the latter was.
Penn State had 13 second-chance points in the game, thanks in large part to Claxton. The difference was the second-chance points, Leibovitz said. Claxton's eight offensive rebounds were more than Hartford had as a team (seven).
Luber, on the difference Claxton makes in tight games: It's huge for us. He's great for us on defense. He took us on his back in the last couple of minutes. Hartford did not score after taking a 55-54 lead with 2:47 remaining.
Penn State's last bucket came on a Morrissey press-break layup with 2:36 left. After that, the teams combined to miss seven shots (including free throws).
The Lions attempted three shots in the final two minutes, two of them (including a 3-point try) by Bogetic. Bogetic came into the game shooting 34.8 percent from the floor and 12.5 percent from the arc. Claxton, meanwhile, did not get a shot in that span. Some guys tried to do things they shouldn't try to do, DeChellis said.
Hartford's multiple zones limited PSU center Brandon Hassell offensively. He only tried three shots (making one) in 30 minutes.
The padding Claxton was been wearing on his right hand (which was broken last month) comes off for good Thursday. He will simply tape together his little and ring fingers for the next week or so.
Hartford (3-4) came in at 3-3 but had won three straight.
Penn State faces Seton Hall at the Meadowlands Saturday in a game that tips at 1 p.m. FSN Pittsburgh will carry the game live. The PSU athletic department is offering free bus travel to and from the game for any student willing to plunk down 10 bucks for a ticket.