UNIVERSITY PARK — It didn’t make sense for freshman Brandon Taylor to lead Penn State to a 60-57 upset victory over undefeated Bucknell.
First, Penn State was playing its first full game without All-Big Ten point guard Tim Frazier, who will miss the remainder of the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon in his left leg. Second, Bucknell brought in a veteran lineup with four returning starters from last season’s 25-win team, including 6-foot-11 center Mike Muscala, who came in averaging 17 points per game. And third, Bucknell came into the game shooting 47 percent to Penn State’s 35 percent.
The improbable upset made even less sense after Penn State shot just 16 percent from the field in the game’s first half.
But the Nittany Lions (3-2) found a way.
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“We practice everyday for not making shots,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “Our kids played hard — that’s the bottom line. They didn’t let missing shots or turning the ball over affect their effort.”
But it was Bucknell (5-1) who got rattled, even though they had already beaten a Big Ten opponent on the road this season (Purdue 70-65). The Bison turned the ball over 12 times and gave up 10 offensive rebounds in the first half.
“This is a real disappointing loss for us,” said Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen, whose Bison have not won at University Park since 1968. “I thought that they were the physically tougher team.”
Muscala had just 10 points and only four shot attempts — just one attempt in the first half. Bryson Johnson led all scorers with 18 for Bucknell.
Taylor, in his first career start, had a career-high 16 points and led Penn State in scoring for much of the game before getting into foul trouble late.
Jermaine Marshall led Penn State with 17 points, including two desperation three pointers in the second half that narrowly beat the shot clock’s buzzer. D.J. Newbill flirted with a triple-double scoring 10 points, grabbing seven rebounds and dishing out seven assists.
It was Taylor’s shooting that kept Penn State in the game in the first half.
The freshman scored eight straight Penn State points — including back-to-back three pointers — with his team floundering and down 10-2 with less than 12 minutes left in the half.
Penn State totaled just five field goals in the first half — Taylor had three of them.
“I went in and had a great Knute Rockne (speech) at halftime,” Chambers said. “Keep shooting,” he said with a laugh. “What else can you do?”
Down 22-16 at the half, Taylor picked up where he left off, hitting back-to-back 3-pointers for Penn State to begin the second half.
“Coach says shoot the ball, so I just let it fly,” Taylor said of his willingness to take big shots. “We work everyday on shooting and coach wants us to shoot the ball with confidence.”
In a game that failed to conform to each team’s previous norms, Bucknell’s scoring withered in the second half. After Cameron Ayers’ (14 points) hit a layup with 11:53 left in the game, the Bison went cold and did not score another field goal until Ryan Hill’s layup with 6:06 left.
Penn State used that drought to go on a 14-5 run, capped off by Ross Travis’ first three point make of the season, which gave the Nittany Lions a 48-43 lead. Travis scored nine points and had eight rebounds in the game.
The Nittany Lions shot 65 percent from the field in the game and for the first time this season made more three pointers than an opponent.
But perhaps the biggest basket of the night belonged to Sasa Borovnjak (six points and four rebounds), who entered the game with just three made baskets in Penn State’s four games this season.
Penn State led 55-48 after Marshall barely beat the shot clock with another three pointer with 3:16 remaining. But the Nittany Lions would fail to score on their next three possessions, while a Joe Willman jumper and another Ayers basket cut Bucknell’s deficit to just a single possession, 55-52, with 2:18 left.
After a 30-second timeout and just 50 seconds remaining in the game, Newbill drove to the basket on the right side and shot an airball that landed softly in the waiting hands of Borovnjak, who calmly put the ball in the basket with 35 seconds remaining as if he had done it a million times before.
The upset win might not have made sense to those on the outside, but Chambers is happy with what he learned about his team.
“I think you see the direction we’re headed in,” Chambers said. “These kids believe in one another, they have faith in one another, when I think (people on the outside) wanted to mail it in. (But) we didn’t feel that way. We felt like we could compete and I’m proud of their approach to practice the last three days.”
“They didn’t let the distractions of the outside bother them,” Chambers said. “And the results look pretty good.”