For the second game in a row, Penn State improved in areas that have crippled the team all season, but still lost late as No. 4 Michigan held off the Nittany Lions 79-71.
Penn State men’s basketball head coach Patrick Chambers’ club made shots, played decent defense early and got an enormous lift from its bench, yet still lost its 18th consecutive conference game.
“The energy, attitude and resolve we’ve had has been incredible,” Chambers said. “We’re getting better. A couple weeks ago, we wouldn’t have been in this game.”
After not having three players score in double figures in the same game until Valentine’s Day, Jermaine Marshall, Sasa Borovnjak, D.J. Newbill and Ross Travis all breached the mark Sunday.
Marshall got hot early and finished with a team-high 17 points to go with seven rebounds. Borovnjak scored a career-high 17 points on an efficient 7-of-9 from the field, while Newbill (4-of-12) and Travis each scored 11 points.
Travis also pulled down 10 rebounds for his first double-double in conference play this season.
However, the Wolverines (22-4, 9-4 Big Ten) were just too much.
Trey Burke finished with a season-best 29 points to go along with five assists and zero turnovers, while Glenn Robinson III matched his career high with 21 points to go with 10 rebounds for a Michigan team that started slowly but came on strong in the second half.
Nik Stauskas contributed 18 points to help overcome a poor shooting night from Tim Hardaway Jr., who scored just eight points on 3 of 11 shooting.
Marshall helped Penn State seize control quickly by scoring seven of the Nittany Lions’ first nine points. The team jumped out to an early 17-9 lead after a nice 3-point play by a driving Nick Colella.
The Nittany Lions (8-17, 0-13 Big Ten) shot 43 percent from the field in the game and an even better 45 percent in the first half. The defense, when it wasn’t losing track of Robinson, also held strong in the first 20 minutes.
In fact, Burke was the only Wolverine to score a field goal until Hardaway hit a jumper with 8:23 remaining in the first half, cutting Penn State’s lead to 18-16.
Michigan shot just 36 percent in the first half and 20 percent from 3-point range, but it managed to stay in the game because of Burke, dunks by Robinson and making 12 of 16 from the foul line as a team.
However, perhaps most impressive for Penn State in the first half was the work of its ancillary pieces when Newbill and Marshall were saddled with early foul trouble. Marshall picked up two first-half fouls and Newbill was ticketed for three.
With a lineup consisting of Jon Graham, Kevin Montminy, Alan Wisniewski, Colella and Travis, the Nittany Lions were able to hold the fort and go into halftime tied at 32.
“They were knocking down 3s and they were getting to the basket for some easy points,” Robinson said of Penn State’s first-half play.
Colella finished with nine points, six rebounds and four assists in 36 minutes of action.
“The first half went as well as it could’ve for us, but giving up almost 50 points in the second half was not executing our game plan,” Chambers said. “We’ve got to learn how to make plays down the stretch to win.”
The second half began with a 6-0 Michigan run that looked like it could balloon quickly and sap Penn State’s confidence. Instead, the Nittany Lions responded with a 6-0 jolt of their own after a Brandon Taylor (six points) 3-pointer squared things at 38.
Michigan coach John Beilein’s team would seize control again after an alley-oop from Burke to Robinson gave the team a 53-45 lead and energized the crowd with 11:49 left, but Borovnjak responded with a put-back, beginning a 9-2 run that ended with Penn State down 55-54 with nine minutes remaining.
That’s as close as Penn State would get, as Michigan motored ahead with a 10-2 run and used that cushion to keep the Lions at bay.
The Wolverines shot a torrid 58 percent in the second half and finished at 46 percent for the game. They also finished 27-for-35 from the free throw line.
“We just needed a win any way possible,” Beilein said.
Despite being tested, the Wolverines remained undefeated in the Crisler Center this season, beating opponents by an average of almost 23 points per game there.
“I told the guys, this was a gritty, not pretty, win,” Burke said.
Penn State and Michigan will meet again at the Bryce Jordan Center on Feb. 27. The Nittany Lions will travel to Illinois on Thursday.