Penn State’s 60-57 victory over previously unbeaten Bucknell was surprising, but not for the reasons that people might expect.
The loss of Tim Frazier to a season-ending injury to his Achilles tendon certainly made the win improbable, but what put Penn State in position to win were areas the Nittany Lions weren’t doing well even when they had a healthy Frazier in the fold.
First-half defenseThe easy answer to how the Nittany Lions (3-2) won is their second-half shooting — 65 percent from the field and 83 percent from the 3-point line — but it was Penn State’s first-half defense that kept it close and allowed time for its struggling offense to gain confidence in the game’s critical early minutes.
When last we saw Penn State, Akron began the second half at the Puerto Rico Tip-off on a 31-7 run. Penn State started that half with a 36-32 lead, but in less than 10 minutes trailed 63-43.
Entering Friday's game, Penn State had given up 47 percent shooting from the field and nearly 42 percent from the 3-point line.
The first few minutes against Bucknell (5-1) had a similar feel, as the Bison started off 3 of 6 from the field and led 10-2 after Mike Muscala’s jumper at the 13:35 mark. Penn State shot just 1 of 9 from the field in that stretch but did manage to force four turnovers, which helped keep the deficit from ballooning further.
In fact, Penn State gave up just three points in the next 7:19 and forced five more turnovers. The span was part of a 10-3 run that got the Nittany Lions back in the game after eight straight points from freshman Brandon Taylor, who finished with 16 points, and a jump shot by Patrick Ackerman.
Penn State wouldn’t make another field goal after Ackerman’s first career points with 7:44 left in the half, but the Nittany Lions stayed close yet again by only surrendering one field goal the rest of the way and thus entering halftime down just 22-16.
Second-half offenseEven with Frazier, Penn State had shot poorly in nearly every first half this season. In fact, the Nittany Lions’ 17 made field goals in the second half against Bucknell were nearly half of their first-half makes in the previous four games combined (35).
Jermaine Marshall scored 15 of his team-high 17 points in the second half, shooting 4-for-5 from the field and 5 of 8 from the foul line. Marshall also hit a pair of important threes that narrowly beat the shot clock. The first gave Penn State its first lead (37-36) with 10:57 left and the second tied its largest lead (55-48) with 3:18 left in the game.
D.J. Newbill (10 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in the game) had a tremendous all-around second half after a less-than-stellar opening 20 minutes. Taking over point guard duties for Frazier, Newbill shot 1-for-7 from the field, turned the ball over three times and had two assists in the first half. But Newbill was more efficient in the second half, tallying five assists, grabbing five rebounds and shooting 4-for-11 from the field. He had just one second-half turnover.
Brandon Taylor scored his 16 points in just 20 minutes after getting saddled with foul trouble. Taylor opened the second half with back-to-back 3-pointers and was 3 of 3 from the field and 2-for-2 from beyond the arc.
Scouting reportsPenn State disrupted Mike Muscala, Bucknell’s 6-foot-11 center, for most of the game. Muscala entered the day averaging 17 points and 11 rebounds and needed just 15 points to reach 1,500 for his career. He ended the night with just 10 points and only four shot attempts.
In the first half, Bucknell turned the ball over three times when trying to get the ball to Muscala. Once he got the ball, the Penn State double-team forced him into three more turnovers.
“I didn’t do a good job of getting good post position,” said Muscala after the game. “Then I kind of panicked when they started to bring the double team.”
Penn State also defended the 3-point line well and for the first time this season, made more 3-pointers than an opponent.
“I want to give my staff credit,” Chambers said. “It’s something that we’ve been really working hard on. And I give the players credit. They really knew the scouting report.”
Key contributionsJon Graham didn’t score in the game but corralled five rebounds and played quality defense on Muscala. Ross Travis scored nine points, had eight rebounds and hit his first 3-pointer of the season. Patrick Ackerman gave Chambers nine quality minutes off the bench and Sasa Borovnjak’s six points and four rebounds also gave Penn State a lift.
Chambers has been asking his big men to combine for a double-double in each game. Against Bucknell, Penn State’s five forwards combined for 33 points and 20 rebounds. As a team, the Nittany Lions grabbed 14 offensive rebounds to just three for Bucknell. Penn State also outrebounded Bucknell 38 to 31 overall.
Penn State will certainly miss Frazier. Bucknell plays very good team defense but is not exceptional at pressuring the ball. More aggressive defenses with full-court pressure will test Newbill at the point in ways the Bison could not.
For one game, though, Penn State authored a win by getting contributions from the entire team and not just because one player filled Frazier's shoes.