For nearly six weeks, Penn State coach Patrick Chambers and the Nittany Lions tried ceaselessly and came up empty. The time had to feel longer to those in the locker room, but it ended Thursday.
Tim Frazier dived on the floor, made a steal and passed it to D.J. Newbill. A hard-charging Newbill got to the basket, reached the ball back with his right hand and slammed it home to take the lead with less than a minute left.
Penn State finally made a clutch play and finally got a Big Ten win, defeating Nebraska 58-54 at the Bryce Jordan Center.
“(It was) instincts,” Frazier said of his strip of Nebraska’s Deverell Biggs. “Something we’ve been working on since coach came in two years ago about diving. If guys get in front of us to dive behind, it’s just instincts. I dove, I got the ball, I threw it and (Newbill) made a tremendous play.”
Newbill was also fouled on the play and his free throw gave the Nittany Lions a two-point advantage they never relinquished. It was Penn State’s first notch in the win column in more than a month and came after a string of hard-to-swallow losses that featured three one-possession defeats and the disappearance of multiple late leads.
While the win allowed the BJC crowd — which featured 5,705 fans Thursday — to cheer at the buzzer for the first time in a while, and gave at least temporary end to Penn State’s frustration, Chambers acknowledged that it was still just one contest. Penn State (10-10, 1-6 Big Ten) had a happy locker room postgame, but it was not excessively jovial, and that was to Chambers’ liking.
“I was really impressed with these guys after the game, I got to be honest,” Chambers said. “They weren’t going crazy. It’s one game. They know we could have more, so this is one game, let’s enjoy it for now and I’m looking forward to getting back to work.”
The Lions stopped the Cornhuskers (9-9, 1-5) on the ensuing possession after Newbill’s one-handed dunk, and after milking the shot clock, John Johnson buried a 3-pointer to put Penn State up by five points with 18 seconds left.
Game over, right? Not for this team.
Nebraska immediately countered with a trey from Terran Petteway. Then, even with two timeouts remaining, Newbill threw the ball over the head of Donovon Jack on the inbound to give Nebraska the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead with 10 seconds left.
The Huskers never got a shot off, however, as a scrum for a loose ball ended in a jump ball. Not many things went Penn State’s way late in games during the losing streak, but the possession arrow did Thursday. Two free throws from Frazier — who had 11 points, nine rebounds and six assists — later and Penn State was no longer the only Big Ten team without a conference victory.
“We don’t want it easy, I don’t know what to tell you,” Chambers said postgame. “We all know we had two timeouts. We got to set better screens, we got to come meet the basketball, come meet the inbounder, and we can’t panic. It’s another great lesson to learn. We’ve seen it all, I think. Haven’t we? I mean, just about. Is there any other way we can give away a game?”
Those ways included blowing a 20-point lead against Princeton, missing 3-pointers at the buzzer against both Minnesota and Indiana that would have forced overtime and, most recently, fouling against Purdue with less than a second left. Penn State had been right there for so long, and finished the job against Nebraska.
Penn State knows it could have more wins to its name, but Thursday was a start.
“I think everybody is kind of relieved,” said Newbill, who posted a game-high 16 points. “We feel that we’re way overdue. We felt that we were a good enough team not to start 0-6 in the Big Ten. So, I think definitely there is a sigh of relief, but now we have to keep coming.”
Notes: Freshman guard Graham Woodward got his first career start Thursday, as usual starter Ross Travis spent most of the game on the bench with what Chambers called “flu-like symptoms.” Woodward was scoreless and collected two rebounds in 13 minutes, while Travis saw just four minutes of action, well off his average of 32.8.