For all intents and purposes, Penn State’s season was 4:24 from being over. A loss to Northwestern to drop to 1-6 in the Big Ten would have ended the Nittany Lions’ hopes for any kind of outside run at an NCAA Tournament berth.
You cannot lose at home to teams that have dropped six straight games, and the Nittany Lions were on the verge of that, down 73-69 with 4:24 to go.
Then came a 10-0 run that saved the game, saved the season for now and very well might have been the most important 4 minutes of the entire season, as Penn State found a way to win, 81-78, Saturday night at the Bryce Jordan Center.
“I’m just really proud of our guys. I thought that was a fantastic program win,” interim coach Jim Ferry said.
“When they came back and they took the lead, we were struggling a little bit there defensively,” Ferry added. “We could have folded there, and we didn’t.”
Northwestern took the 73-69 lead on a bucket by Pete Nance with 4:24 remaining. But 19 seconds later, Myreon Jones buried a huge 3-pointer that cut the deficit to one and ignited PSU’s 10-0 run.
Penn State went ahead, 74-73, on a pair of free throws by Seth Lundy with 3:10 left, and Izaiah Brockington drove and scored with 2:51 remaining.
Neither team scored for a minute and a half, until Jamari Wheeler drilled a massive 3-pointer from the right wing for a 79-73 lead with 1:10 to go.
Penn State didn’t play well at all over the final 70 seconds, but it didn’t have to.
The damage had already been done in that crucial 10-0 run.
“It was definitely frustrating when we did lose the lead, but that’s how the Big Ten is,” Brockington said of falling behind to the Wildcats.
But this Penn State team, despite its 0-5 start in the Big Ten, found something in Thursday’s 75-67 win over Rutgers to finally get that first league W.
What the Lions found very easily could have been lost had they dropped the game to Northwestern. Instead, winning the game the way they did — with a late comeback — is the kind of victory that could springboard this team to a nice little run.
This is the Big Ten, so nothing will be easy. But at least Penn State has a chance to do something nice coming up.
Had it lost to Northwestern, there would have been no chance of that.
“I feel like this is the most connected we’ve been all season, because only a connected team wins that game,” Brockington said. “We were down going into the final minutes, and we just knew we had to come up with big stops and big plays, and the guys did that. I’m proud of them.”
Ferry talked about the leadership of John Harrar and Wheeler keeping the team together, and Wheeler’s 3-pointer was huge in every way. You need your leader to make that kind of shot because it invigorates everyone on the team.
The Lions won their second game in a row playing without injured guard Myles Dread, which is even more adversity they’ve had to overcome in this ridiculous, adversity-filled season.
“What I saw tonight was a bunch of guys really connected and really playing for each other, which is something we’ve been working toward,” Ferry said.
Ferry talked about having great character on the team, and that has been on display the past two games.
“It’s about us playing games,” Ferry noted. “We needed games (after being on pause for 17 days), and I think you’re starting to see this group start to come together.”
Unfortunately, the Lions got some bad news later Saturday when it was announced that Michigan will be suspending all athletic activities because of COVID. The Wolverines were scheduled to visit PSU on Wednesday, and when you’re playing well with a two-game winning streak, the one thing you don’t need is to have to take another long break — this time a week.
Still, it’s not all bad, because Penn State can use some rest after playing four games in seven days. And PSU doesn’t have to play an outstanding Michigan team next, which likely would have ended the Lions’ winning streak.
“After this game was probably the first time that I have admitted to myself that I’m exhausted,” Brockington said.
“It was definitely a grind playing this many games in this amount of time.”
The schedule down the stretch is brutally tough, with games against all of the Big Ten powers coming up. Penn State could play pretty well night in and night out and still only win two or three more games against this gauntlet.
But at 2-5 in the league, the Lions at least still have a pulse. If they can string together a little winning streak and just stay within striking distance of a .500 mark in the league, you just never know how things could play out down the stretch for a team that’s No. 41 in the NET rankings.
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