Then a pair of Nittany Lion rookies delivered the knockout punches in a 65-64 victory over the Hawkeyes.
We talk about it all the time; it's about who's going to make plays, said freshman forward D.J. Jackson, whose conventional three-point play with 18.3 seconds left was the game-winner. We have a lot of competitors here and we're going to be a special team.
PSU is not quite special yet. With the win, the Lions improved to 13-14 overall and 5-10 in the Big Ten, and kept alive their hopes of playing in the NIT or new CBI — not exactly the stuff of power programs. And early in the second half of this game, State looked like it was steaming toward an embarrassing loss against an Iowa team that had not reached 60 points in its previous seven games.
Despite playing dreadful defense in the first half, PSU still led 31-30 at the break. Following a long dry spell to open the second half in a loss at Minnesota Sunday, Lion coach Ed DeChellis varied from his typical serious locker room demeanor on this night.
I was trying to be Happy the Clown and pump them up, he said.
It didn't work. PSU attempted to change the way it was going over screens to do a better job of stopping 3-point shots and it failed miserably. The Hawkeyes bombed in three straight triples to go up 39-31 and later got a 3-pointer from talented guard Jake Kelly to make it 45-33.
That's when Cornley went to work. The 6-foot-5, 240-pounder repeatedly got the ball in the post against Iowa 7-footer Seth Gorney and repeatedly took him to school. Cornley scored 18 of his game-high 22 in the second half to practically single-handedly keep State in it.
When you get in a groove, you feel no one can stop you, he said. I knew we were down and I knew we needed some buckets.
Cornley's duck-under layup with 4:43 remaining cut it to 60-57.
First-year Iowa coach Todd Lickliter, who aggressively recruited Cornley as the head man at Butler, was asked to discuss the forward's play. I'd rather not, he said with a smile. Do I have to remember that?
But things improved for the Hawkeyes when they scored the next four points, all on free-throws by guard Dan Bohall, to go up 64-57 with 2:40 left.
Then Penn State turned up the heat. Cornley was fouled and made both free throws to cut it to 64-59. Iowa's next possession ended when guard Tony Freeman was stripped by Lion freshman Talor Battle, and Battle wound up making a 3-pointer at the other end to draw PSU within 64-62 with 1:05 showing.
Then Kelly threw a bad pass that resulted in a tie-up. Penn State had the arrow and possession with 32 seconds left. Following a timeout, junior guard Danny Morrissey missed a long 3-pointer.
But Jackson grabbed the rebound and scored while being fouled by Bohall with 18.3 seconds to go. He calmly made the free throw and State was back in front for the first time since early in the half, 65-64.
Following a timeout with nine seconds left, Iowa looked confused on offense. Lickliter said his team had three different options, but it ended up with a wild drive to the hoop by Freeman. The shot missed. Then a tip by Kelly missed. Then the ball went out of bounds off Penn State with 1.2 seconds showing.
Kelly inbounded to Justin Johnson but Battle jumped right in his face. Johnson fumbled with the ball and Iowa (12-17, 5-11) never got a shot off.
Though Jackson's three-point play turned out to be the game-winner, he was the first to credit Cornley as the night's MVP.
He was a beast, he was a monster out there, Jackson said. He played with heart and effort.
He's like a prize fighter, DeChellis added, he has to take a couple hits before he gets going.
Of course, it helped that the rookies were comfortable entering the fray in the final round.
Our kids are growing up, DeChellis said.
Penn State scored 20 points off 17 Iowa turnovers, which offset the Hawkeyes' sizzling shooting (57.5 percent).
The Lions have now won three straight Big Ten home games, the first time since 2000 that they've done that.
Iowa made 22 of its first 34 shots. But the Hawkeyes only attempted six shots — and only made one — in the final 8:15.
Gorney played 39 minutes but did not attempt a shot.
Penn State plays host to Michigan Saturday (8 p.m., Big Ten Network). It will be senior night.
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Ed DeChellis and Jamelle Cornley