Patrick Chambers was seeing his dream play out before him. Fans lined up to see his team, and everything from the energy level in the 84-year-old gymnasium to the scoreboard was in his favor.
Penn State basketball was back in Rec Hall, and on the cusp of victory. But the Nittany Lions imploded in the final minutes, and Chambers’ dream ended in the coach slamming a towel against the scorer’s table and his best player crouching under the basket wondering how he missed a layup to tie the game.
It was the first time in almost 18 years that Penn State was back in its old stomping grounds. And even with a 20-point lead with less than 10 minutes remaining, the team came up empty in an 81-79 overtime loss to Princeton on Saturday, disappointing a packed crowd of 6,188 that was very much into the game.
Despite blowing the considerable advantage, the Nittany Lions (8-4) still had a chance to force more basketball in the final seconds of overtime.
Tim Frazier caught a full-court pass and had a look right near the basket with a chance to knot up the game as time expired, but his shot rolled off the rim and disbelief set in on Penn State’s sideline. The shot was contested, and though Frazier looked to an official after the play, he did not blame the missed shot on the lack of a whistle.
“That’s kind of the way the game goes,” Frazier said. “Even if I did get fouled, the call could have went either way, I still should have made the shot.”
Frazier, a fifth-year point guard, is the player Chambers wants to have the ball in late-game situations. However, Frazier also came up empty on a free throw with five seconds left in overtime that would have tied the game, and also missed a 3-pointer at the end of regulation — a play that he said he probably should have drove the ball instead.
“That is going to weigh on him — the missed free throw, the missed layup at the end — that is going to weigh on that kid,” Chambers said. “That kid, I feel for him. He was so proud to play in this building. My team was so proud to be here. I never felt it like that before about the basketball program.”
Chambers said he was not happy with the fact the game came down to those few plays from Frazier. And by no means did it have to.
Penn State was in a groove early and shot 56 percent in the first half, while Princeton was ice cold behind the 3-point line. With eight-and-a-half minutes left in regulation, the Lions led, 56-36. But in the span to the buzzer, Princeton hit four treys, scored on nearly every possession and Penn State turned the ball over five times with the Tigers (8-1) in a 1-3-1 zone.
Princeton ended the half on a 30-10 run, with the Rec Hall crowd getting tenser with each make. Penn State being unable to close out games has been a trend all season, and it bit the team hard Saturday. Frazier took responsibility for not keeping the team on track, and Chambers acknowledged a need to get much better during late-game situations.
“I was really disappointed in the way we finished,” Chambers said. “As a coach, you call timeouts, you motivate, you write up things. You hope you can execute, you hope you can do some things, and it just didn’t [work]. Even when we did execute with missed free throws and we were about to execute, we turned it over.”
Penn State got 24 points apiece from Frazier and backcourt mate D.J. Newbill, but the duo combined for 13 of Penn State’s 20 turnovers — which were, by far, a season worst for the team.
“A lot of turnovers were us being careless with the basketball, it wasn’t necessarily on them,” Newbill said. “They got in the passing lanes, too, but I think it was on us.”
The outcome was a sour one for the home side, but as an event, “Return to Rec” was a spectacle the program has never seen. People got to the gym well before the 2 p.m. tip time, and the student section was on its feet throughout, and made as much of an impact as it could being right on the floor.
It was certainly a change of pace for Chambers, who took over the program in June 2011, and he added he was glad the men’s basketball team was at the forefront of the conversation for once.
“I saw the line, I got a little misty, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “I’ve been here three years, and I’ve never seen a line anywhere. And it was nice to see a line out the ticket window, people waiting to get first-row seats, kind of like football.”
Chambers, himself, beat the rush by a good margin. The coach noted he took one of his daughters with him and got to Rec Hall at 8:30 a.m. to embrace what his team was about to do.
The feeling was much different eight hours later, but it was a game the coach wanted since he got to Happy Valley, and he watched it happen.
“I sat up in the stands with her, way up — well not way up — but up in the rafters,” Chambers said. “Your vision became a reality. And I need to thank everyone who was a part of it. We put on an incredible show today. Everything was detailed, everything was organized, just an incredible group here. And I know people think they don’t want good basketball, you saw it today, first-hand, it was there. People want to see us win. People want to see us excel. That’s exciting to me.”