Leading 58-42 with 13 minutes remaining, the Nittany Lions (10-5, 2-1 Big Ten) folded down the stretch and saw their seven-game winning streak end. And while there were many reasons for the collapse — untimely turnovers, the inability to stop Golden Gopher bomber Blake Hoffarber, a senseless intentional foul in the final seconds — this game was clearly lost at the stripe.
Penn State shot 17 of 36 from the foul line in the game (47.2 percent), including a dreadful 1-of-10 double-bonus performance in the final 6:14. The Lions actually made 50 percent of their field goals in the game, suggesting they'd have been better off had the Gophers been able to guard them on the freebies.
Afterward, first-year Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said he appreciated the hospitality he received on his initial trip to Happy Valley. I'd like to commend Penn State. It's not like that everywhere. He was talking about the way his team was treated by the PSU athletic department and fans, of course, but the twinkle in his eye suggested he was thinking about the gift-wrapped win, too.
We've got nobody to blame but ourselves, said Lion coach Ed DeChellis, who on several free-throw attempts in the closing moments spent more time looking down toward his black loafers than at whatever PSU player happened to be at the line.
Penn State came into this game as the second-worst free-throw shooting team in the Big Ten, knocking down only 62 percent of its attempts. Despite a rare 2-0 league start, with both wins on the road, it was only a matter of time until the inability to execute one of the game's most fundamental skills cost the Lions a game.
But early in the second half, it didn't seem as if that would matter here. State opened the second session with a 20-7 run to go up 58-42 and appeared to be in complete control. But four turnovers on four possessions and Hoffarber's hot hand made short work of that. His jumper cut it to 58-52 at the 11:04 mark.
The Gophers haven't exactly been lighting it up from the line this season, either, but they were solid Saturday. Dan Coleman hit both ends of a one and one and Spencer Tollackson made a pair to give Minnesota a 68-67 lead at 6:42.
Penn State played with heart late — particularly rookie point guard Talor Battle — but its lousy free-throw shooting was too much to overcome. Freshman forward Jeff Brooks missed a pair to start the slump. Then Cornley made 1 of 3 in a one-minute span, tying the game at 73-73.
Then Claxton badly missed two — one short and one long — with 1:27 left and the score still knotted at 73-73.
A minute later and with the same score, Battle missed two more. But the second miss was rebounded by D.J. Jackson, and Penn State called timeout with 19.2 seconds remaining to set up a potential game-winning shot.
The ball went in to Claxton on the block with just under 10 seconds to go, which made sense considering he already had 19 points in the game (despite making only 5 of 12 freebies) and was basically scoring at will in the paint. But rather than shoot, the senior tried to pass the ball to Cornley, and it was stolen by Gopher freshman guard Al Nolen.
Though the game was still tied, Battle grabbed Nolen's jersey in an attempt to prevent a breakaway. He was called for an intentional foul. Nolen made both free throws to put Minnesota up 75-73 with 5.9 seconds left and because of the intentional the Gophers got the ball out of bounds, too. Nolen was quickly fouled again with five seconds left, and made one of two.
Battle rushed the ball up the floor and his hurried 3-point shot at the buzzer was not close. But he knew the missed triple, his intentional foul or even Claxton's late turnover really weren't the difference in the game.
At Penn State, free throws come at a cost. And Saturday afternoon that price happened to be the ultimate one.
It basically came down to foul shooting Battle said. If we make a couple more free throws, the game is sealed.
SUNDAY HOOPS WRAP
The Lions are at a loss to explain their poor free-throw shooting this season. After Saturday's meltdown, they are shooting 60.3 percent as a team. PSU has attempted 53 more free thows than its opponents this year, but has made only nine more.
Claxton called it mental, but danced around questions of how veteran players can be plagued by such issues this late in their careers.
DeChellis at least was straightforward: If I could say what it was, then I'd fix it. The coach insisted his team spends the proper amount of time working on foul shots in practice and tweaking form when needed, but added, I don't have a magic wand or crystal ball that says you have to make free throws.
By The Numbers
Claxton had 19 points and 11 rebounds against Minnesota, while Cornley added 11 points and seven boards. But the duo combined to make only 8 of 20 free throws. The rest of the team was 9 of 16. Claxton and Cornley are now shooting 55 and 54 percent from the line for the year, respectively.
Penn State continues to destroy opponents on the glass. The Lions won the rebound battle in this one, 38-25, and Claxton's seven offensive boards were more than the Gophers had as a team (four).
Lion guards Danny Morrissey and Stanley Pringle had four turnovers each. The latter had his four miscues in only nine minutes. In the meantime, Mike Walker, who played only nine minutes in this game and has seen less action than Morrissey and Pringle on the year, has an incredible assist-to-turnover ratio of 16-2 on the SEASON. Walker is averaging one turnover every 125 minutes.
Minnesota had 24 points off 17 PSU turnovers in the game.
The Gophers improved to 12-3 and 2-1 in the league.
Redshirt freshman center Andrew Jones has started PSU's last 10 games. But he only played eight minutes Saturday, 10 minutes in a win at Illinois last Sunday and six minutes in the league opener at Northwestern.
Value of Euro Declines
The Lions' two European scholarship players, juniors Joonas Suotamo and Nikola Obradovic, have each played in only three games this season. Neither has seen the floor since a Dec. 15 blowout of Denver. In the Penn State press notes, their bios have been shortened and moved to an area that includes the team's walk-ons.
In the meantime, a third European import who was a member of the same recruiting class (2005-06), center Milos Bogetic, transferred to Division II Mercyhurt in the off-season. He is now a reserve for the Lakers, and is averaging 6.2 points per game.
The class in question is a lock to go down as one of the worst in Penn State history. It included Florida guard Max Dubois, who transferred TO a junior college. He is listed on the roster at South Plains in Texas, but has not played at all this season.
Also in the class was juco transfer David Jackson, a functional guard who graduated from PSU last spring and was the only productive member of the class.
Next up for the Lions is a Tuesday night home game against No. 25 Wisconsin. It tips at 9 p.m. and will be carried by the Big Ten Network.