The Penn State men’s basketball team works on end-of-game situations as often as any program.
That’s what coach Patrick Chambers said as he discussed the topic two days before the Nittany Lions took on No. 17 Maryland. It’s been a focal point for a team that’s been in tight contests time and again since November, and Penn State had just split a pair of close calls against Minnesota and Illinois the previous week.
The loss at Maryland went down to the wire Wednesday and gave Penn State more late-game situations to review Thursday.
“We watched Maryland, we watched Illinois and we watched Minnesota at the end-of-game situations,” Chambers said Friday. “Because it’s critical that we learn from our mistakes and get better.”
The Nittany Lions (14-9, 2-8) will aim to apply those lessons when they host Nebraska (13-9, 5-5) in a Big Ten matchup at 4 p.m. Saturday.
After losing two straight by double digits, the Cornhuskers rolled to a 76-60 win over Northwestern on Tuesday. Terran Petteway, who is third in the conference in scoring with 19 points per game, poured in 28 points and shot 50 percent from the field to lead Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have struggled to score in Big Ten play, ranking second-to-last in the league with 59 points per game.
Penn State is trying to figure out how to finish games after going 7-0 in games decided by six or fewer points during its nonconference slate. The Nittany Lions have lost five conference games by six or fewer points and lost by seven points in overtime to Purdue.
The Nittany Lions’ last three games were decided by two possessions and came down to the final minute. Chambers said he felt his team has been prepared and focused in its last four games.
“We played hard and we competed,” Chambers said. “And we’re just a stop away, a possession away, a free throw away, one less turnover away from flipping it. We’re close but we’re not all the way there yet.”
Against Minnesota, Penn State got the stops and knocked down its free throws to pull out a five-point win.
After the Golden Gophers cut the Nittany Lions’ lead to two points, Penn State knocked down three free throws in the final 40.7 seconds. The free throws were enough thanks to a pair of defensive stops.
Minnesota’s Andre Hollins lost control of the ball with Geno Thorpe guarding him on the perimeter, turning it over with Penn State up by three. DeAndre Mathieu dribbled around on the ensuing Gopher possession and tried to squeeze a pass to Maurice Walker, who couldn’t secure possession with the Nittany Lions up by four.
“They got to have confidence in it,” Chambers said Monday of closing out games. “We got to get to the free-throw line, that’s what really helps. That’s why you beat Minnesota. You beat Minnesota because you get to the free-throw line.”
Penn State didn’t get the stops and didn’t score in the final minute of its losses to Illinois and Maryland.
A lack of execution on both ends burned the Nittany Lions against the Terrapins.
Defensive breakdowns helped Maryland build a five-point lead with two minutes left. In a one-possession game in the last minute, D.J. Newbill took and missed on a contested jumper and floater.
As the team’s unquestioned leader, Newbill gathers his teammates and tries to keep them ready for each situation.
“It’s my job to make sure the team knows exactly what we’re doing,” Newbill said Monday. “So some of the times, it’s not just me teaching, it’s me just relaying a message from coach. Those guys have done a good job of just listening to me, trying to put it out there on the court.”
Chambers said his team wasn’t on the same page Wednesday.
The coach has used a variety of lineup combinations to overcome the suspension of John Johnson and knee injury to Brandon Taylor. Taylor returned Wednesday and Chambers said the defensive rotations were off when he went small.
“It’s challenging because you’re trying to get your rotations down,” Chambers said. “You have to move guys around, new inbounders, new screeners, new positions for a lot of different guys so that they understand our offense, where they need to be and they have to understand our defense where the rotations are. So we got to everybody on the same page.”
Especially in crunch time.
“It’s such a journey when you hit February,” Chambers said. “And we have to continue to get better.”
Notes: Saturday’s game is THON Hoops Day. About 70 families with children who are undergoing or have undergone pediatric cancer treatment will be part of a ceremony and special postgame event. ... Nebraska leads the all-time series with Penn State 5-4. The teams split their regular-season matchups last year. ... Newbill leads the Big Ten in scoring with 21.3 points per game. He’s seven points away from moving into a tie for fourth on the program’s all-time scoring list. ... After scoring a career-high 10 points against Illinois, Julian Moore was limited to one minute against Maryland due to sickness.