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Close loss despite poor play a good sign for PSU

Photo by Penn State Athletics: Izaiah Brockington

I knew as soon as I hit send on this tweet that something bad could happen. I knew that because I have followed Penn State basketball closely for 20 years and have seen the Nittany Lions fall apart at the end of many, many games. So obviously, there was a pretty good jinx possibility here.

Sure enough, after that tweet was sent, everything went wrong for Penn State. The Lions didn’t score again over the final 2:53 and wound up losing to a good Michigan team, 62-58, in the Big Ten opener for both teams Sunday afternoon in Ann Arbor.

There’s a glass-half-empty approach I could take here, about how Penn State basketball continues to be Penn State basketball and that it just can’t get out of its own way late in games. The loss to Seton Hall last week was as good of an example of that as you’ll see, as PSU blew an 8-point lead in the final 1:58 and lost in OT.

But let me take a different tact here.

Penn State did not play a good game. No doubt about it. Interim coach Jim Ferry said it numerous times during his postgame press conference.

“I don’t think we played well at all,” Ferry said.

Then he added this:

“And we’re still in a one-possession game, we can win the game on the road.”

Penn State scored only 58 points, shot just 31 percent from the field and got roasted inside when the game came down to the wire.

Those are problems, for sure.

But after watching the Lions play this season, it’s become clear that they can indeed turn it on and play very well at times. When they do that and shoot the 3 well, they can beat anybody, as we saw in the 75-55 thrashing at Virginia Tech this past week.

What you’ll hear baseball pitchers say frequently is that they have their bust stuff about 10-20 percent of the time. Another 60 percent of the time they have decent stuff. But they have to learn how to compete and try to win for the other 20 percent of the outings when their stuff is bad.

It’s easy to judge a team when it’s playing well. It’s harder to judge a team when it’s playing poorly.

Penn State played really well for about 10 minutes Sunday. That’s it. The Lions were down 36-21 in the first half before going on an 18-2 run that gave them the lead.

They played toe to toe with Michigan the rest of the way, including going on a late run for the 58-56 lead with 2:53 left.

MIchigan answered with four straight points on inside buckets by big man Hunter Dickinson. Look, PSU is going to struggle defending good big men in the Big Ten — we know this — and that was the case Sunday as Dickinson had 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting.

The Lions had some good looks down the stretch, but didn’t make them. Down 60-58, Izaiah Brockington made a good drive to the basket but missed a contested shot.

Michigan missed two free throws, giving PSU one last chance. This time, Sam Sessoms got to the middle of the lane and went to the bucket but missed a contested shot.

Those were good looks, by two good offensive players. Penn State needed to make one. It didn’t. Sometimes that happens in basketball.

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It’s not a sign of a bad team or bad play. The shots just didn’t fall.

“We got to finish those or get to the foul line,” Ferry said.

“I don’t think we’ll miss two times in a row if we do it again,” he later added.

Maybe it’s because expectations for this Penn State are so low that we can look at Sunday’s game and not be all that disappointed. Again, the Lions can play much better than they did, and yet there they were, still right there in it at the end.

I’m not talking moral victories here. I’m talking realistic expectations.

There is one other game situation I want to bring up.

Penn State got the ball with 53 seconds left down 60-58. The Lions could have gone for a 2-for-1 — shooting quickly and making sure they got another possession.

They didn’t do it. They shot with 31 seconds left, missed, then had to play the foul game. They got lucky that Michigan missed two free throws, giving them another chance to tie. Sessoms just missed the shot in the closing seconds.

I watch a ton of NBA. The 2-for-1 is a given in that league.

I watch a ton of college basketball. The 2-for-1 is almost never used.

It’s absurd. Just do the math, take advantage of it analytically and find a way to get the extra possession.

Ferry said going for the 2-for-1 can be a “fragile situation.”

“You’re trying to get a really good shot, not just necessarily any shot,” he said.

Again, most college basketball coaches feel the same way, because they don’t always have five good offensive weapons on the floor. Still, Penn State does have a lot of good weapons, and it would make sense for the Lions to have at least tried for the 2-for-1 there.

NOTE: Penn State isn’t scheduled to play again until Dec. 23 at home against Illinois, but Ferry said the program is looking to add another non-conference game between now and then.

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Cory Giger is a 15-year veteran of the Penn State beat and a journalist with 28 years of experience. He has won more than 100 state and national journalism awards during his career, plus he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy in football and Wooden Award in basketball.

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