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In nation’s best conference, resilient and pesky Lions give everyone fits

Photo from Penn State Twitter: John Harrar

It took a long, long time — 10 years and a span of 13 games — but Penn State finally ended the skid. The last time PSU beat Wisconsin in a basketball game, well, it really wasn’t even a basketball game. It was that unwatchable abomination of a 36-33 victory on March 11, 2011 in the Big Ten Tournament.

Saturday’s game, without question, was much more pleasing to the eye.

The Nittany Lions earned exactly the kind of victory they needed over the nation’s No. 14 team, 81-71 at the Bryce Jordan Center. Penn State trailed by three at the half, then came out and played a terrific second half filled with swarming defense, hustle, effort, good shots, good decisions and … a lot of bad shooting by Wisconsin, which missed a bunch of open shots that prevented it from mounting a comeback.

Late in the game, BTN announcer Brian Butch, who played for Wisconsin from 2004-08, made the comment that Penn State has the kind of team that no one wants to play. The way the Lions play so hard, he noted, makes things difficult for everybody.

Now, that “team no one wants to play” label can kind of go two ways. It’s certainly a compliment because it is praising your team. But then again, that label always seems to be bestowed upon unheralded teams that don’t necessarily have good records and actually are much tougher than their record would indicate.

That describes this Penn State squad perfectly.

“I gotta take it as a compliment if someone’s talking about your team playing hard,” PSU interim coach Jim Ferry said when told of Butch’s comment.

“We were picked 13th (in the Big Ten), so do people think we’re not very good?” Ferry later added. “I don’t know. I never pay attention to that stuff. We’re always gonna play hard, and now we’re playing hard and we’re playing well.”

This play right here essentially sums up what it’s like playing against Jamari Wheeler and the pesky Lions.

There’s also this insane bucket from the hardest worker in college basketball, John Harrar, who had a career-high 17 points against Wisconsin.

The Lions are now just 3-6 in the Big Ten, but they can cause anybody in the nation’s best league big problems on any given night. They outplayed Ohio State for the much of the game earlier in the week, only to blow an 8-point lead and fall, 83-79.

That was the kind of crushing loss that can really deflate a team.

But not this Penn State team.

This squad continues to show tremendous resiliency and fight, coming out every night with at least puncher’s chance to knock off some of the country’s top teams.

“The resiliency of this group just keeps showing, the connectedness of this group just keeps coming through,” Ferry said. “After that tough loss at Ohio State, we really locked in, I thought we defended really well, and we got the game to be played at our pace.”

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Penn State is 6-7 overall to go along with 3-6 in the Big Ten. If the Lions would have won at Ohio State and then beaten Wisconsin as they did, I can guarantee you, at 4-5 in the brutal league, they would be in the field of 68 for bracketologists right now.

Book it.

That’s how little margin for error there is when you’re talking about being on the bubble and playing in such a tough league as the Big Ten.

Penn State’s NET ranking continues to be very good — No. 35 entering Saturday — and that will only go up by beating the Badgers, who are No. 16 in the NET.

Now, PSU has to go on the road and play Wisconsin in three days. You have to figure the Lions will lose that one — it’s just so tough to beat a team twice in a row in back-to-backs, not to mention how tough it is playing at Wisconsin anyway — and if PSU does lose, it will be 3-7 in the league.

Yet still ranked in the top 40 in the NET.

Believe it or not, the schedule actually does get a little bit easier after the trip to Wisconsin.

Easier by some measures but still very tough.

The Lions host Maryland (3-7 in the league), travel to Michigan State (2-5) and host Nebraska (0-5). Those are three of the bottom four teams in the conference standings, but again, we’re talking Maryland and Michigan State here, so absolutely nothing will come easy.

But Penn State has a chance. I asked Ferry the other day about being on the bubble, and he responded by saying bubble talk doesn’t matter unless you get some wins.

This win over Wisconsin was huge in that regard, and we’ll see if the pesky Lions can use it to for a spark to getting on the right side of the bubble.

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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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