With a victory, the Nittany Lions would guarantee themselves no worse than a third-place finish in the Big Ten and, presumably, all but lock up the program's first NCAA Tournament bid since 2001.
Unfortunately for PSU, the Hawkeyes had other ideas, using a pair of crazy banked 3-pointers late to pull away with a 75-68 double-overtime victory in Iowa City.
This is a very tough one to swallow, Penn State coach Ed DeChellis said on his postgame radio show. But I think our kids competed and played very, very hard.
There was no question about how hard they played. How smart is another matter.
In action for the second time in less than two days, the Lions fell to 21-10 on the season and 10-8 in the Big Ten. They now must hope for Wisconsin (vs. Indiana) or Ohio State (vs. Northwestern) to lose at home Sunday to gain a top-five seed (and a coveted first-round bye) at the league tournament in Indianapolis next week.
If the Badgers and Buckeyes both win, PSU will finish sixth in the conference, meaning an opening-round game against Indiana Thursday. That will be a no-win on a couple of fronts: the 11th-sseded Hoosiers have a sub-200 RPI rating, which will hurt PSU's NCAA resume; and the tournament is played in Indy, which will basically make it a home game for IU.
The Lions had the built-in excuse for not playing well in this game, having beaten No. 23 Illinois in a 9 p.m. tilt Thursday. PSU also had some bad luck go against it, as Hawkeye guard Jake Kelly banked one 3-point prayer to save Iowa in the first overtime and then banked in another in the final minute of double OT.
But the Penn State players and coaches also hurt themselves. From a player standpoint, the Lions relied far too heavily on 3-pointers throughout. And with tired legs, they only made 7 of 28. Included among the bricks was a Talor Battle bomb just before the buzzer in regulation.
No one could question Battle's effort in the game. He finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds and three assists, and led an incredible 14-5 run in the final two minutes of regulation to send it to overtime. But he was 1 of 8 from the arc in the game, so taking the ball strong to the hole would have been a better option at the end of regulation.
And Battle wasn't alone. In the second overtime, Penn State attempted eight triples, making only one. The Lions did not score from inside the arc or from the line. They did not shoot a free throw in the two overtimes. They made one shot in the paint in the two overtimes.
The game may never have gone to overtime if not for a curious strategy play by DeChellis and his staff. Penn State was up 30-25 early in the second half when reserve guard Danny Morrissey replaced first-teamer Stanley Pringle. This after Pringle opened the half with a bucket and an assist.
Iowa tied it a minute and a half later, prompting DeChellis to send Pringle back in. But he replaced starting center Andrew Jones, giving PSU a three-guard look.
The Hawkeyes began screening like crazy to force the Lions to switch, meaning one of the guards would invariably end up trying to handle a Hawkeye big man in the paint. It worked for Iowa. Cyrus Tate feasted inside, scoring three straight baskets after the Lions went to three guards.
We were trying to switch on ball screens and make them go inside and make those guys (the big men) try to score, DeChellis said.
The Hawkeyes were only too happy to oblige. Penn State stuck with some variation of the three-guard look until falling behind 51-42 with two and a half minutes remaining.
Tate finished the game 7 of 9 from the floor. Fellow big man Jarryd Cole was 5 of 5.
Right or wrong, we gave ourselves a chance to win, DeChellis said.
More to the point, Battle gave them a chance to win. He made a layup with 1:56 left to cut the lead to 51-44, then, following a Pringle steal, converted a conventional 3-point play 10 seconds later.
Penn State finally hit on the key to scoring against Iowa -- going strong to the rim. The Lions kept pressing and Battle kept attacking. Between the 1:56 and 1:05 marks, he scored 11 points, all on drives or free throws. And he cut the lead to 54-53.
Thirty seconds later, Pringle came through with a steal and another conventional 3-point play, giving PSU a 56-54 lead. But Cole scored inside at the other end with 10.3 showing and then Battle brought the ball up the floor and reverted to the long ball.
It wasn't even close. Even DeChellis said he was hoping Battle would drive and get it closer and maybe get fouled.
Instead, the regular season was extended into overtime. And then double overtime. And now, even after it is over, the Nittany Lions figured to be doing some serious sweating Sunday.
Battle's big scoring day will likely help him finish the regular season as the Big Ten's leading scorer (17.3 ppg). He passed Michigan's Manny Harris, who with a 14-point effort in a win at Minnesota dipped to 17.1 ppg.. Battled score 535 points in 31 games. Harris scored 529 in the same number of outings.
Ohio State's Evan Turner can pass Battle Sunday, but he'll have to score 32 points vs. Northwestern to do it. The Wildcats have not allowed any player to score more than 29 this season.
Northwestern-Ohio State (5 p.m.) and Indiana-Wisconsin (7 p.m.) are both on the BTN Sunday.