UNIVERSITY PARK — After Penn State’s loss to Iowa last Saturday, Nittany Lions coach Patrick Chambers said his team looked tired.
In the previous six days, the Lions suffered a disappointing loss to a struggling Illinois team at home and pulled out an exhilarating comeback win over Indiana on the road. The coach felt the ups and downs of the week wore Penn State down mentally and physically, something that began to show as the Lions faded in the second half against the Hawkeyes.
“We got to get fresh legs and get ready for the stretch run,” Chambers said.
The stretch run begins with Penn State’s game against Nebraska at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Thursday at 7 p.m. It’s the first of five games remaining for the Lions (13-13, 4-9) to make their mark before the conference tournament. It’s also Penn State’s lone game this week, giving the Lions the chance to rejuvenate as they prepare for the Huskers (14-10, 6-6) and the final three weeks of the regular season.
“Watching the game over and over as much as I did, they looked more fatigued after that week,” Chambers said on a teleconference on Tuesday. “So we gave them the day off Sunday, we did some 5-on-0 yesterday and did some shooting. We went short but hard and then we watched film. So yesterday was more of a cerebral day than a highly competitive day.”
Penn State will face a confident Nebraska team that has won five of its six games since losing to the Lions on Jan. 23.
The Huskers are coming off their biggest win during that stretch, a 60-51 upset of then-No. 9 Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich. The win suddenly moved Nebraska into the NCAA tournament conversation just more than three weeks after falling to 1-5 in the Big Ten.
Nebraska coach Tim Miles said his players need to block out any talk of the NCAA tournament right now.
“Basically, it’s just like avoid the noise,” Miles said on the Big Ten coaches’ teleconference Monday. “None of it exists until it exists. What I mean by that is that all we can control is winning games, so anything outside of that, looking beyond the finish line. The finish line is how well we practice today. The finish line is how we prepare ourselves for Penn State.”
Chambers has taken the same approach, saying his focus is on how the team practices each day and on getting ready for the next opponent.
The Huskers boast the Big Ten’s second leading scorer in Terran Petteway, who is averaging 17.7 points per game. Petteway scored a career-high 35 points in a win over Minnesota to start Nebraska’s hot streak in the last six games, and he scored 23 in the upset of Michigan State.
Miles praised Petteway for his all-around effort against the Spartans.
Petteway guarded MSU’s leading scorer, Gary Harris, carried offensive load for the Huskers and had zero turnovers in the win. The Lions know what to expect against one of the conference’s top players.
“From what I’ve heard and just the little tidbits seeing on ESPN, he’s strong, he can get to the rack well and he leads the team, which is good for Nebraska,” Penn State guard Tim Frazier said.
Penn State limited Petteway to 15 points in the first matchup between the teams in January.
While Nebraska enters Thursday night’s game as a team unexpectedly on the NCAA tournament bubble, the Lions are looking to finish their season strong. And they’ve come to expect a battle every night in the Big Ten, which has seen traditional powerhouses like Michigan State and Ohio State drop home games to Nebraska and Penn State, respectively.
“There’s no one team that’s just standing out over the pack because that’s how good every team is in this conference,” Penn State guard D.J. Newbill said. “That any given night, you can go out and win a big game or lose a big game.”
At this point, the Lions have five big games left.
After hitting a wall with three games last week, Chambers hopes his team is refreshed and ready for the final push.
“We are where we are,” Chambers said. “And we just got to keep fighting and keep getting better and be the best team we can be by the end of the year.”
Notes: Nebraska is 11-1 at home this season. … The Huskers are 11-2 in games decided by five or fewer points in the last two seasons. Nebraska lost to Penn State by 58-54 on Jan. 23. … Penn State has gone 3-6 in games decided by five or fewer points this season. … Penn State has won four road games this season, the most since the Lions won six in 2008-09. … Tim Frazier needs seven rebounds to become the first player in program history to record 1,000 points, 600 assists and 500 rebounds.