And then things got a kind of interesting.
With its 11th victory of the season apparently at hand, Penn State lost focus against Sacred Heart in the final 12 minutes at the Bryce Jordan Center Tuesday night. The Pioneers went on a 26-10 run to cut the lead to 68-65 with just under a minute to go, before the Nittany Lions were roused from their holiday funk to score the game's final eight points for a 73-65 win.
State improved to 11-2 heading into a three-day break for Christmas, and afterward head coach Ed DeChellis was asked if his troops might have started enjoying the holidays a bit early.
Do you think? he said with a smile. Human nature took its toll.
DeChellis pointed out that most of his players would be heading to their respective homes for the break, and that it would be their first time away from the team since August. So in that regard, nearly blowing the 19-point lead was not a surprise.
I could have predicted it at halftime, he said. That's kids. That's this time of year.
Penn State toyed with Sacred Heart in the first half, as point guard Talor Battle went off for 20 points on 6-of-7 shooting. The lead was 44-28 at the break and, even though Battle was not nearly as hot in the second half, the Lions still marched through the first seven minutes and change.
But the scrappy Pioneers (3-6) never quit, and when the Lions hit cruise control heading into their holiday break, the lead evaporated. The real issues were on the defensive end, where Sacred Heart shot 51.5 percent from the floor in the final half.
We have to do a better job of defending, Battle said. That lead would not have dwindled if we kept defending.
In the final two minutes, with the lead stuck at six (68-62), the Pioneers began to press. Though the Lions were flustered, calling timeout to prevent a five-second call and throwing the ball away twice, Sacred Heart could not capitalize.
The Pioneers were forced to foul with 1:05 left, and picked the worst free-throw shooter among the PSU regulars. Forward Jamelle Cornley (57.4 percent going in) promptly missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Ryan Litke responded with a 3-pointer to trim it to 68-65 with 50.6 left.
The Pioneers pressed again. Lion guard Stanley Pringle was trapped and called timeout. State inbounded, moved the ball into the frontcourt, and with less than 12 seconds on the shot clock, Cornley got the ball. But Sacred Heart did not foul to force him to try another one and one.
We took a shot at trying to stop them, Coach Dave Bike said. That didn't work.
That's because Cornley passed to Battle, who drove and hit a short pull-up jumper while being fouled. He made the free throw for a 71-65 lead at 18.7 and the Pioneers turned the ball over on their final two possessions.
He's a proud guy, DeChellis said of Battle. He loves the pressure of the game.
Despite finishing with a game-high 25 points, Battle didn't love the way he and his teammates played down the stretch. But he was able to put things into perspective.
Obviously, we're disappointed by blowing the lead, he explained. But we're 11-2 going into the Big Ten.
And with that, he was off, his parents waiting outside the media room to whisk him back to his hometown of Albany, N.Y.
Merry Christmas, he said, as he walked out of sight.
All in all for the Lions, it was a pretty good night.
GAME NOTES: Pringle had 15 and Cornley 13 and nine boards. Penn State will be back in action against Northwestern at the BJC at noon Dec. 31. It will be the Big Ten opener for both teams.