UNIVERSITY PARK — What has already been a difficult start to Big Ten conference play for Penn State, got worse after a procession of Nittany Lions missed critical free throws in the team’s 68-64 loss to Nebraska on Saturday at the Bryce Jordan Center.
The late-game misses even drew a smattering of boos from fans that seemed ready to erupt after what seemed like a hard-fought comeback.
“We missed five free throws when we needed them,” said D.J. Newbill after the game. “We just have to execute. We have to have those free throws.”
The Cornhuskers got off to a cold start from the perimeter, but warmed quickly and controlled the action for most of the game led by Shavon Shields’ game-high 29 points. The win was the Cornhuskers’ first in conference play.
Shields — a wiry 6-foot-6-freshman — was nearly flawless from the perimeter, hitting 10 of 11 from the field and 8 of 8 from the foul line. In fact, as a team the Huskers were 16-of-16 from the foul line.
Conversely, Penn State (8-10, 0-6 Big Ten) cost itself dearly.
After a Jermaine Marshall 3-pointer cut the deficit to 66-63, Nittany Lions coach Patrick Chambers called timeout with 32.1 seconds left to set his defense and instruct his team.
On the ensuing possession, Ross Travis and Nick Colella hemmed Brandon Ubel (12 points) along the baseline near the senior’s own basket. A harried Ubel bought space with an elbow that connected to Travis’ face.
With Travis stinging, Ubel was able to find Ray Gallegos (15 points), who promptly had the ball stolen by Newbill. The sophomore from Philadelphia headed to the basket and was fouled, barely missing a layup that could have led to a 3-point play.
As referees reviewed the Ubel elbow on a monitor per NCAA rules, Penn State’s share of the estimated 9,883 fans in attendance began to stir.
His infraction was deemed a flagrant foul, which carries a two-free-throw penalty and possession of the ball.
So the stage was set for Newbill and Travis. Each would get a pair of free ones and because Penn State was also due the ball, they were dead-ball free throws with no defenders surrounding the foul line.
After Newbill went 1-for-2, a few fans groaned lightly. Then after Travis missed his first, more fans grew restless. When the referee handed the sophomore the ball for his second, a few fans yelled “shhh,” a clear attempt to quell the anxiety in the building.
His second attempt went begging. However, Jermaine Marshall gave fans another flicker of hope when he got fouled on the next possession after spinning into the lane and getting hacked by Shields.
Marshall also missed both. Ubel — a senior who missed the last two games with a fractured elbow — secured the rebound, got fouled and calmly drained both freebies.
Penn State entered the game first in the Big Ten in free throw percentage since conference play began (73.9 percent). They shot just 15-of-24 in the game.
“We had our chance,” Chambers said. “We didn’t convert. We didn’t get it done.”
Newbill and Chambers both acknowledged the team’s shared responsibility of making free throws, but neither believed the miscues necessarily decided the game.
“But it didn’t come down to those free throws,” Newbill said. “It came down to the whole game. We didn’t play hard enough. We didn’t come out with enough energy.”
After jumping out to an energetic and confident 7-0 run to start the game, the Nittany Lions staggered as Nebraska (10-9, 1-5 BIg Ten) answered and took control with a 14-2 run of its own.
Shields was unstoppable in the first half. He drove by and scored on a litany of Lions, finishing the half with 13 points on 6-of-6 shooting, four rebounds and the respect of Chambers.
“(Shields) had 29 points. 29,” Chambers repeated with emphasis. “At some point you have to take pride in stopping somebody. And we had everybody — you name them, they covered him.”
“But he just plays hard, he plays aggressive,” he continued. “I’m not even sure how many plays they run for him. But he just gets it done. Clear head. No distractions. Understands his role. Into Nebraska basketball. 29 points.”
Nebraska coach Tim Miles praised and teased his youngster after the game.
“He almost had a triple-double,” Miles quipped with Shields sitting next to him. “I just informed him he had six turnovers. You have to keep those freshman (in line).”
“He just keeps getting better,” Miles, who tweeted at halftime about his team’s defense, said. “I told him the other day there’s no ceiling here. Don’t just be happy with 18 or whatever it might be because the sky is the limit.”
Penn State got more production from its ancillary pieces, but not enough to overcome a decent but not great night from Newbill (11 points, six assists, six turnovers) and Marshall (18 points, 5-of-16 shooting). Marshall scored all 18 of his points in a brilliant second half.
Brandon Taylor scored nine points and grabbed six rebounds. Sasa Borovnjak scored eight and added five rebounds, while Ross Travis had eight points and five boards.
“We need more production out of other guys,” Chambers said. “D.J. and Jermaine are trying. They’re trying to do everything. And they’re playing the best guys on the other team. So (they) have to score 20 and then (they) have to defend the best guy on the other team.”
“We need Brandon to be a sophomore and we need Sasa to be a 23-year-old senior. That’s what we need. Whoever comes in off the bench needs to get it done. With energy. With enthusiasm. They need to bring a spark.”