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Determined Nittany Lions Battle Past Indiana’s Jackson-Davis

Penn State Nittany Lions forward Kebba Njie (3) January 21, 2023 David Hague/NSN

CHICAGO — Kebba Njie stepped away from the podium, flashing a big smile and two thumbs up to reporters.

Myles Dread’s look was more one of exhausted satisfaction, reflecting the work he’d just put in against Indiana.

Together, the two had combined for one of the most thankless jobs in the Big Ten: 40 minutes against Hoosier star Trayce Jackson-Davis.

On paper, Indiana’s big man won the matchup, scoring 24 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.

But the stat sheet didn’t tell the full story.

Jackson-Davis got his numbers, but Njie and Dread forced him to work for everything he got.

Only two of Jackson-Davis’ rebounds came on the offensive glass. Penn State both won the rebounding battle and won where it counted most.

“Trayce Jackson-Davis is a stud,” Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry said. “Being from Indiana and being able to see him, like he played for Zach Hahn, who I coached at Butler, seeing him from high school all the way through, he’s special. For us to be able to play this way against this caliber team. I thought until a certain point towards the end of the game our defense was fantastic.”

Njie’s contributions (nine rebounds) showed up in the box score. Dread’s were less obvious but no less effective. Despite giving away five inches to Jackson-Davis, the fifth-year senior’s efforts to keep him away from the rim proved instrumental in keeping Indiana from stuffing its chances.

Dread’s done this before against taller players than him. Other than Michael Henn, height is something  Penn State’s seniors lack, often forcing Shrewsberry to trade height for experience and strength.

Dread filled that role in round 1 against Illinois big man Coleman Hawkins when Njie and Henn got in foul trouble, and Saturday, he answered the bell again.

“It’s a job, and it’s my role,” Dread said. “I take it heads on and give it everything I have. It’s about effort, it’s about toughness and drawing a line in the sand.”

On most of Indiana’s possessions, that forced Jackson-Davis away from the rim and forced Indiana to go to its second or third option. That proved problematic, because without Jackson-Davis being a sure thing underneath, Indiana didn’t look like it wanted to risk a deep shot.

“I felt like sometimes we can shoot it and pump fake it and try to drive instead of just taking the open three,” Jackson-Davis said. “Just little things like that where they were just creeping in a little bit. But at the same time, you can’t be afraid to shoot the ball. We’ve got a great team. We’ve got great shooters, and that’s what really spaces the floor for us. So when we’re not doing that, they can just pack it in.”

Indiana still scored 48 points in the paint, but it had to bleed precious time when it scored. Njie, Dread and others knew stopping Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson inside wasn’t possible, but slowing them down could and did happen because the Nittany Lions matched the Hoosiers’ physical play.

“I expected just like what they did,” Njie said. “They were very physical, and I was preparing for that too. Right now, I feel great because we got the win. Later my body might be hurting and all that, but it’s all good.”

It was good for Penn State in one surprising category: offensive rebounding. It’s no secret that Penn State sits bottom of the barrel in offensive rebounding, grabbing just 5.8 per game. But against Indiana, Penn State won the battle. Indiana pulled down just seven offensive boards, and Njie himself grabbed four of his team’s nine.

“I was so impressed with Kebba,” Shrewsberry said. “He doesn’t always play big minutes because we downsize a lot, but ever since we lost at Nebraska, he had like four or five offensive rebounds (a game) there. Something flipped the switch for him right there. Maybe it was the first time through the league and the physicality that he had to play with and the effort, and he totally flipped the script.

“Since that game, he’s been lights out. He might not always score. He might not always do things; he might still mess things up. But he’s been going to the glass. He’s been getting us extra possessions, and those have been huge. He battled. He fought down there in the post. I’m just happy for him, man. He probably has no idea what he did and who he was guarding.”

Njie might or might not have, but he knew he gets to come do it again Sunday. This time, the matchup is Purdue’s Zach Edey, an even taller and even tougher task. But with a championship at stake, he and Penn State are set to power through another difficult assignment.

If it does, Jackson-Davis won’t be surprised.

“They don’t play big,” he said. “They can play small ball and really space the floor, and they’ve got shooters from one through five, and they play very physical for even when they do play small ball. I think it really helps they’re good on rotations.

“That’s a great team, and they executed their game plan very well.”

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