Penn State’s D.J. Newbill immediately started backpedaling after launching his game-winning shot attempt at Minnesota.
His Nittany Lion teammates watched as the 3-point shot made its way toward the basket, ready to celebrate as they had been in similar situations throughout Big Ten play. Newbill took game-tying 3-point attempts against Indiana and Maryland but came up empty. He rushed down the court for a game-tying, contested layup against Illinois but missed.
This time, though, Newbill drilled the big shot in the final seconds, lifting Penn State to a win in the regular season finale Sunday and setting off its first lively celebration since the senior guard’s buzzer-beating layup against Cornell in November.
“I felt like the weight of the world was off his shoulders and I think that’s why I was emotional,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “Not because we won, it was more for him and our team.”
Chambers has voiced a similar sentiment throughout the season, saying he wanted to see the program win games for the team’s star guard. While Newbill led the Big Ten in scoring with 20.7 points per game, the Nittany Lions (16-15, 4-14) finished 13th in the conference.
With his career winding down, Newbill leads Penn State into the Big Ten tournament at the United Center in Chicago, where the Nittany Lions will face No. 12 seed Nebraska (13-17, 5-13) at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. The winner advances to face fifth-seeded Iowa in the second round Thursday.
Newbill was the top scorer among players in the Power 5 conferences, but he was left off the All-Big Ten first team.
“It’s definitely a motivator but I can’t get caught up in the accolades,” said Newbill, a second-team selection. “Right now I’m still trying to focus on my team, how we’re going to get each other better.”
The Nittany Lions are focused on Nebraska.
Nebraska coach Tim Miles heaped praise on Newbill after Penn State’s 56-43 win over the Cornhuskers in early February.
“What I like about D.J. is he’s improved every year and he’s not a guy that just is trying to get a scoring title,” Miles said. “He scores because he can score. He’s really strong. He can score in a lot of different ways.”
Newbill scored a modest 11 points in that game, but Miles said his team’s constant attention on him created opportunities from beyond the arc for his teammates.
Miles and Nebraska have faced Newbill five times in the last three years, limiting him to 14.4 points per game and 36 percent shooting — below his Penn State career averages of 18.2 points and 43.8 percent.
“I love him, but I’m tired of him now,” Miles said.
Opponents offered similar praise for Newbill throughout the season.
He torched Purdue for a career-high 37 points in January. Newbill scored 27 of Penn State’s final 29 points, including all 10 in overtime of an 84-77 loss to the Boilermakers.
“When he started driving and getting fouled and making layups, I thought that really affected us,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “And he was trying to work our big guys downhill.
“But he hit a lot of shots that were contested pull-up jump shots. I thought were just tough shots. They’re shots that he makes, but you don’t shoot 75 percent that way on pull-up jump shots with somebody draped on you, but you have to give him credit, he was great.”
Purdue’s Rapheal Davis, who was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, guarded Newbill at times. Jon Octeus tried to stop Newbill, too.
“He was just ultra-aggressive,” Octeus said. “As you can see, he’s the only one that took double-digit shots on his team. He was doing a really good job off the ball screen. He’s just a good player, he’s an NBA guard.”
Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, the Big Ten Player of the Year, said Newbill was the toughest player the Badgers faced during the conference awards show Monday on Big Ten Network.
But Newbill was not included on the All-Big Ten first team by the coaches and media.
“I’m disappointed for him and for our team because you take him off this team — I think that’s what it’s really about — you take him off this team and who knows where we’d be?” Chambers said. “It wouldn’t be pretty though. I know that.
“He does everything for us. He’s the top person on everybody’s scout (report). Everybody schemes for him and he still was the leading scorer in the Big Ten.”
Chambers acknowledged the success of the team likely played a factor in the voting.
“D.J. didn’t get the respect that he deserves,” Chambers said. “And again, I’ll take some heat here because we needed to win more games I think, but Tim (Frazier) got it when we won four games.”
Newbill and Penn State weren’t pleased with their 4-14 run through Big Ten play, but they’re focused on the conference tournament now.
Newbill’s game-winner at Minnesota lifted the Nittany Lions to their first win since their victory over Nebraska.
And he’ll be ready to fire again Wednesday.
“I’m always a super-confident guy,” Newbill said. “I can go 0 for 30 and still think I’m going to hit the 31st shot. My confidence has always been high, I always put the work in so my confidence has never been shaken.”
Notes: Nebraska finished the regular season on an eight-game losing streak that started with its loss to Penn State. Nebraska shot 29.4 percent in the loss to the Nittany Lions. The Cornhuskers’ last win was Feb. 3, a 76-60 victory over Northwestern. ... Nebraska’s Terran Petteway finished fourth in the conference in scoring with 17.8 points per game. ... Geno Thorpe is averaging 12.5 points and Shep Garner is averaging 11.3 in the last four games. Brandon Taylor is second on the team in scoring for the season with 9.3 points per game. ... Penn State is 9-17 all-time in the Big Ten tournament.