CHICAGO — After Penn State basketball won it’s first two Big Ten tournament games, the team’s celebrations were mostly low-key.
Not after Penn State basketball had put itself 40 minutes away from a championship.
As soon as Indiana’s final desperation 3-pointer fell to the side and Penn State secured its 77-73 win, the team let its emotions loose. Senior Myles Dread led the charge to the small section of Penn State fans in the United Center, who will now have a chance to see their try to win its first league title in 32 years and first Big Ten title ever.
“This means the world,” Dread said. “Guys have talked about wanting to go to the Big Ten championship, and getting there hit me as soon as we walked off the court. We’ve talked about this for a long time, and I’m so ecstatic that I can’t put it into words.”
The last time Penn State (22-12) won a conference title, the program was in the Atlantic 10 and the Big Ten only had 10 teams. Now the Big Ten has 14 teams who descended on Chicago, and along with Purdue, Penn State is part of the last two standing.
“It’s really special,” Penn State guard Jalen Pickett, who led the team with 28 points, said. “We felt like throughout the whole year we’ve seen guys putting in work, and we all talked about what kind of team we can be when we’re all on the same page and we’re all playing together.
“To be standing here right now in this moment is kind of refreshing, but it kind of makes us more hungry because we want to go out and finish what we started.”
Penn State earned the chance to do so because of how it rose to the challenge of stopping Indiana.
The Hoosiers (22-11) entered the game with a high 3-point percentage, but that was skewed because they take few 3-pointers.
Against the Nittany Lions, the few shots Indiana took didn’t drop. The Hoosiers connected on none of their 3-point looks in the first half, and only Tamar Bates ever hit anything from the perimeter.
“We knew coming in that they don’t shoot a lot of threes,” Penn State guard Andrew Funk said. “Obviously, they play off of Trayce Jackson-Davis a lot, but (Friday against Maryland), they shot nine threes. So we knew we would have to really protect the paint and rotate out from there. We knew they wanted to pound it in and then get the shooters from there.”
The only scorers who did anything in the second half for the Hoosiers were Jackson-Davis and Bates. Race Thompson started the game hot inside, but foul trouble put an end to that. Thompson didn’t make a shot in the second half, and the Nittany Lions almost completely took Jalen Hood-Schifino out of the equation.
“I think our ball screen defense has been pretty good here recently,” Penn State basketball coach Micah Shrewsberry said. “We’re just trying to be aggressive, trying to be disciplined, trying to get guys in the tough spots. (Hood-Schifino) is really good in the mid-range, and he makes a bunch of those shots.
“We tried to bottle him up and always have somebody there to contest it when he got there and try to keep him away from the rim as much as possible, which is a tough task, all while trying to keep Trayce away from the rim.”
Jackson-Davis got his points with 24, but the rest of the Hoosiers seemed frustrated. Over time, frustration gave way to timidity. While Penn State showed hunger from the opening whistle, Indiana constantly passed up decent looks.
“I think we played lackadaisical in stretches throughout the game,” Jackson-Davis said. “We would make pushes, but then we would kind of relax, and they would start to step on us a little bit.
“We need that intensity throughout the whole game, and we can’t play scared. I thought overall we played kind of tentative. We weren’t shooting the ball when we should have been.”
By contrast, Penn State showed tenacity once it got its nose in front early. Exactly one year after John Harrar closed his Penn State career saying he couldn’t wait to see a Big Ten championship banner come to University Park, his former teammates are now 40 minutes from making it a reality.
“We want to do this for this team,” Dread said. “Guys have worked so hard, and it’s not for the season or the coaches, but for each other. To have something to show for it would mean the world.”