In dropping each of its last two games, the Penn State men’s basketball team knew the problem — defense.
The Nittany Lions had surrendered an average of 82 points over those two games, so head coach Patrick Chambers had a point of emphasis in practice the past few days.
“The last two games we got punched in the mouth, so to speak, and we didn’t respond,” Chambers said. “We had two great days of practice and we responded today.”
The defense came through.
After Bucknell built its largest lead at eight with 5:37 left, the Bison were held to just one point the rest of the game as Penn State prevailed 62-58 Saturday afternoon at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Payton Banks drilled a 3-pointer with 22.6 seconds left for the go-ahead points, and Brandon Taylor added a free throw for the victory in the Route 45 rivalry.
The Nittany Lions (3-2), who never led by more than five, were led by Brandon Taylor’s 19 points and 11 rebounds, with nine points apiece for Banks and Shep Garner.
Chris Haas’s 18 points, Zach Thomas’ 14 points and Nana Foulland’s nine rebounds led Bucknell (3-3).
With the game knotted at 58-58 in the final minute, Taylor rolled around the top of the key with the ball before finding Banks alone in the right corner for the game-winner.
Banks knew he was going to have a good opportunity.
“We were actually looking for (Taylor), get him in the post, because he was having a really good game,” Banks said. “We knew he was going to get double (teamed) so (the coaches) said ‘Look opposite.’ I put the trust in him to make that, he put the trust in me to knock down the shot.”
Taylor had been looking to get the ball low.
“They were doubling the post most of the game, so usually they were leaving the big guy (Jordan Dickerson) open,” Taylor said. “… I think their coach was telling them to watch the middle, so that’s why I kept my dribble, when I saw Jordan was covered, then I saw Payton. I trust him to make that shot.”
The game had been a tight battle throughout, with 10 ties and 13 lead changes.
But it looked like Bucknell was in control with seven straight points from Haas in the span of 78 seconds. The senior guard sank two free throws, drilled a 3-pointer, then drove the baseline for a reverse layup with 5:37 left.
The Bison would not hit another field goal, missing their final seven attempts.
“(The difference is) night and day,” Taylor said when comparing Saturday’s defensive play to previous losses to Duquesne (78-52) and Radford (86-74). “Everybody was talking. We had two hard days in practice and it was just defense. I don’t even think we worked on offense at all.”
One potential score was waved off by an offensive goaltending call, but the biggest sequence came when Penn State had whittled the margin to four points on mid-range buckets from Garner and Julian Moore. A Ryan Frazier jumper was blocked by Josh Reaves, then Garner got a piece of a Stephen Brown 3-point attempt. The end result was a shot clock violation.
“That just lifted us up,” Taylor said. “We knew we weren’t out of that game. We get excited off our defensive stops, not our offense.”
An exchange of free throws and a Taylor basket had the deficit at two points before a layup from Dickerson tied the game at 58-58 with 1:16 left, setting the stage for some magic from Taylor and Banks.
Haas had a chance to tie the game with a 3-pointer with 2.9 seconds left, but it was off the mark. Taylor grabbed the rebound, drew a foul and one free throw set the final margin.
“It’s Division I basketball. Guys are going to make plays,” Bison coach Nathan Davis said. “Give them credit. They made one more.”
Notes: With the Blue Band out of town for the football game and the holiday weekend, the Altoona Area High School band stood in Saturday. … The Nittany Lions next hit the road at Boston College on Wednesday in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. … Penn State was 39.6 percent from the field in the game, but made just 10 of 30 shots in the second half and just 5 of 18 on 3-pointers. Bucknell was 29.8 percent from the field, just 24.1 percent in the second half and hit 6 of 20 3-pointers. … The Nittany Lions had a 6-0 lead in blocks.