Penn State’s Shep Garner pulled up for a deep 3-pointer, a few feet beyond the arc, and drilled it.
The freshman guard confidently shook his head, mirroring D.J. Newbill’s reaction to his 3 on the previous possession, as the Nittany Lions’ lead grew to 16. Penn State had scored on its last six possessions to seize control of its first-round game against Nebraska in the Big Ten tournament. The Cornhuskers had managed one free throw during the same stretch and took a timeout with 15:50 to play.
Penn State immediately went from hot to cold, going scoreless for more than six minutes to let Nebraska back in the game. The Cornhuskers cut the deficit to two points with 9:47 left and stayed within striking distance the rest of the way, pulling within one point in the final minute.
But the 13th-seeded Nittany Lions held off 12th-seeded Nebraska for a 68-65 win at the United Center on Wednesday.
Penn State advanced to the second round to take on fifth-seeded Iowa at 2:30 p.m. Thursday. No. 8 Illinois and No. 9 Michigan will play in the first game Thursday at noon.
The Nittany Lions (17-15) lost to Iowa 81-77 in overtime at the Bryce Jordan Center on Feb. 28.
Newbill paced Penn State with 26 points on Wednesday, and Garner finished with a career-high 19. The backcourt duo combined to go 9 for 16 from beyond the arc.
“Shep and D.J., they have a lot of guts and a lot of grit, and I think that’s what you need in tournament play,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “Really important that you don’t get deflated when other teams go on runs. You’ve got to stay even, and you’ve got to know that you’ve just got to win the next possession. And if we just take it a possession at a time, they’ll find success, and I think that’s what they did.”
Penn State also set a single-game Big Ten tournament record with 16 blocks. Brandon Taylor had a career-high five blocks, Newbill had a career-high four and Donovon Jack had three.
“Those guys were attacking the basket,” Newbill said. “I was fortunate to be able to get some clean looks at the ball, just trying to make defensive plays for my team. We got stops.”
The Nittany Lions recorded nine blocks and held Nebraska (13-18) to 28.1 percent shooting en route to building a 34-29 halftime lead.
Penn State caught fire to start the second half, scoring on six straight possessions to go on a 14-1 run. Garner and Newbill combined for 13 of the team’s 14 points and knocked down three straight 3s to push the Nittany Lions ahead 51-35.
The scoring drought followed.
Penn State went 0 for 9 from the field and 0 for 3 from the foul line while Nebraska started its comeback and pulled within 51-49 with 9:47 left.
Nebraska coach Tim Miles credited his team’s defense for the comeback.
“We pressed them a little bit,” Miles said. “They kind of get us running around and not thinking about anything. When you press, you’re kind of mindless. And that’s good. You take your mind off the big deficit, you take your mind off the shots, they’re going in or not going in. You’re able to just kind of run around, and see if you can make some plays. And we were able to and get them hurried up a little bit and at least get on the attack.”
The Nittany Lions’ largest lead in the final nine minutes was eight points. Nebraska came within one point twice, but the Cornhuskers never tied it or took the lead.
Nebraska’s Terran Petteway, who scored a game-high 29 points, knocked down a pair of free throws to cut Penn State’s lead to 66-65 with 42.7 seconds left.
Newbill missed a floater on the ensuing possession, but Nebraska couldn’t secure the rebound and both teams scrambled for the loose ball. Penn State took possession on the jump ball with 5.1 seconds left.
Penn State’s Geno Thorpe hit two free throws to push his team ahead 68-65 with 4.2 seconds left.
And the Nittany Lions advanced to the second round after Nebraska’s Shavon Shields missed a last-second 3-point attempt.
“As a unit we’re on a mission, the whole team,” Newbill said. “We’re disappointed how we finished in Big Ten play, so we’ve got another opportunity to come out here and prove to ourselves and prove to everybody that we’re better than what we showed.”
Notes: Penn State or Iowa will advance to face fourth-seeded Purdue in the quarterfinals Friday. ... Penn State’s 17 wins are the most in a season under Chambers. ... Penn State advanced to the second round of the Big Ten tournament for the first time since 2011. ... Nebraska outrebounded Penn State 51-34. The Cornhuskers grabbed 24 offensive rebounds. ... It was Nebraska’s ninth straight loss. ... Shields had 20 points and 10 rebounds for Nebraska.