Given that everything that could go wrong basically did go wrong for the Nittany Lions in the previous few weeks, it was perfectly understandable that they weren't quite sure how to react to the celebration that erupted after their first home win over a ranked opponent since 2001.
It was crazy, junior guard Stanley Pringle said of the PSU student section rushing the floor. I didn't expect them do to that. I was like, 'Oh man, should I run or what?'
Or what, in the form of soaking up the atmosphere, prevailed for Pringle and his teammates.
As bad as January was for Penn State — besides the losing streak, leading scorer and rebounder Geary Claxton's career ended with a torn ACL — the first game of February was a case of good karma finally finding its way to Happy Valley.
Fueled by a spirited crowd of 11,159, the Lions played with intensity and energy from the opening tip. The speedy backcourt tandem of Pringle and rookie Talor Battle gave the Spartans fits all night, scoring out of the set offense and in transition, and dogging MSU star guard Drew Neitzel on the defensive end (he finished 2 of 10 from the floor).
PSU was effective from the floor (21 of 43), the arc (9-22) and the free throw line (34 of 51). More importantly, the Lions made shots — from the floor and the line — at clutch moments.
Up 42-39 at the break, Penn State moved ahead 53-43 on Battle's coast-to-coast basket with 16:02 remaining. But the Spartans came into this game at 19-2 overall and 7-1 in the Big Ten, and were not about to roll over.
Forward Raymar Morgan and reserve guard Kalin Lucas keyed a 17-5 run that put MSU in front 60-58 at the midway point of the second half. In earlier games, Penn State collapsed in such situations. This time around the Lions had other ideas.
The only thing we did differently was change our attitude and come out with a lot more energy, forward Jamelle Cornley explained.
Indeed, Penn State (11-10, 3-6) regrouped and the game was a brawl for the next six minutes. The officials called this one tight throughout, and in the end — surprisingly — it helped the Lions, who have struggled all season to make free throws. PSU's last 20 points in the game came from the line.
Cornley broke a 69-69 tie by making one of two with 3:56 left. From there on out, the Lions were 15 of 18 from the line in slowly pulling away for the victory. While MSU coach Tom Izzo admitted to being less than thrilled with the officiating, he had no beef about the number of free throws PSU shot, saying the opponent played with more heart.
Fifty one free throws is a lot, Izzo said. But they earned them.
Likewise, Izzo went out of his way to heap praise on his friend DeChellis: That guy deserves to have something good happen to him because he's been though a lot and he's taken a lot of crap.
Surprisingly, there was very little drama in the final few minutes. The Lions actually played like the ranked team, clamping down defensively, protecting the ball, making free throws and generally keeping the Spartans at arm's length.
That's a monumental effort by a team that's been beaten down and beaten up, Izzo said.
Hopefully this will give us some confidence, DeChellis added.
If nothing else, at least they'll know how to react the next time the students rush the floor.
Pringle had a career-high 19 points and six rebounds to lead PSU, while Battle had 17 points and four assists.
The rebound battle was a tie at 31-31.
Penn State's last win over a ranked opponent was at Illinois in 2006. The last home win over a ranked foe was against Illinois in 2001.
PSU is at Purdue Tuesday for a 9 p.m. tip (Big Ten Network).