The instant some genius synthesizes and then bottles confidence, Patrick Chambers might be the first person in line.
He doesn’t seem to lack it. His team — at times — does.
“We didn’t play hard in the first 20 minutes,” Chambers said after his team’s 68-64 loss to Nebraska. “I was shocked. Absolutely shocked … we were in a good place. Good energy. And we just came out and … I don’t know.”
“I don’t feel like they felt pressure,” he continued. “We created an environment of being loose and being confident. And that first 20 minutes – like I’ve being saying all year long, you put people in the stands, cameras on – things change a little bit.”
The Nittany Lions (8-10, 0-6 Big Ten) did appear more relaxed and lighthearted before the game. Hours before the 1 p.m. tipoff, the usual early birds (Ross Travis, Nick Colella) went through pregame shooting drills. Instead of the usual stone faces, smiles and jokes were cracked. The mood continued as more Lions trickled in. It also appeared to leak into the opening minutes of the game.
Sasa Borovnjak, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound center, opened the scoring against Andrea Almeida, Nebraska’s 6-foot-10, 314-pound colossus. The movements of each were glacial, but Borovnjak’s sweeping lefty hook hit the spot and ignited a 7-0 Penn State run.
After a 3-pointer by Brandon Taylor, a dunk-saving block by Jermaine Marshall and a layup by D.J. Newbill, the Nittany Lions appeared a confident bunch. That is until the Cornhuskers responded.
“I was curious to see how that was going to work out too,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “I thought (my) guys just always composed themselves. I didn’t feel it was necessary to call timeouts and shepherd them through it. They just kind of handled it on their own.”
Conversely, Penn State’s poise and confidence seemed to ebb and flow quickly.
Chambers spent some of his timeouts just trying to stabilize it.
“Half my huddles are pumping them up and motivating and getting them going and pushing them and driving them,” he said. “I wish there were more Xs and Os.”
The Huskers (10-9, 1-5 Big Ten) seemed to quash Penn State’s confidence repeatedly with large runs, a problem that has plagued the team all season. Nebraska went on a 14-2 run to get back into the game early and then a 13-3 run to take control.
They also opened the second half with an 8-3 run. Penn State responded, going on a 12-0 spurt of its own and later a 9-2 surge that even grabbed a short-lived 52-48 lead.
So where does Penn State’s confidence go after briefly showing its bashful head?
“Missing shots, turning the ball over,” Chambers said. “You miss a couple of shots, you can’t worry about it.”
Penn State’s Attitude Club is a statistical system the staff uses to reward hustle plays.
“I tell them to focus on that stuff,” Chambers continued. “Don’t focus on missing shots. Don’t focus on turning the ball over. Focus on attitude club, focus on game goals and how you can help the team win.”
Then there were the missed free throws.
Down 66-63 with 24 seconds remaining, three Nittany Lions went 1-of-6 from the foul line, while Miles’ club capitalized.
“Free throw shooting for us is about mental toughness,” Miles said. “Nobody’s guarding you. It’s just you and yourself doing the same thing over and over. Shavon (Shields) hit some big ones and Brandon (Ubel) hit some big ones.”
Ubel hit the pair that sealed the game, while Shields went 8 for 8 from the stripe, part of 29-point performance for the freshman, who went 10 for 11 from the field.
After the game, a question for Chambers referred to the loss as devastating.
“Devastating is a strong word,” he said. “I would just say there’s still a lot of games left. A lot of practices left. It’s a long season. We’re on a marathon …”
The second-year coach also said he was “proud” of his team for fighting back and that he sees progress even if others don’t.
“I’m worried about us,” Chambers said when asked about traveling to No. 2 Indiana and then hosting No. 11 Ohio State next week. “I’m worried about where we are as a team, where we need to get to.
“We need to be the best team we can be by the end of the year. I’m not sure what that means. Is that one win, two wins, zero wins? I don’t know. But as long as I see progress and as long as I see us getting a little bit better each day then that’s the best team we can be.”