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Smeltzer: Youth, Experience Combined to Create Season’s Greatest Moment for Penn State

Graphic from Evan Mahaffey Twitter

On the first night of March, one of Penn State basketball’s most experienced players made the biggest shot of the team’s season to this point, and one of its least experienced players made it possible.

Penn State basketball came into this season surrounded by an unusual amount of optimism. A lot of it was because of the team’s mix of veterans and newcomers. 

Coach Micah Shrewsberry’s squad is the most experienced in the country, according to KenPom.com.

His freshman class arrived on campus as the highest-rated in school history. 

Well, the season is almost over. Although we won’t be able to give our final opinions until we know what becomes of these Nittany Lions, we’ve had 30 games to see how the old and young players gel together. 

To no surprise, Penn State has lived and died by its veterans, namely Jalen Pickett, Seth LundyAndrew Funk and Cam Wynter. The one freshman in the starting lineup, Kebba Njie, has shown potential. But neither he nor any of his classmates have become a star in the Big Ten yet. 

And that’s ok. 

Penn State being so vet-heavy allows its freshmen, such as Njie, Kanye Clary and Evan Mahaffey,  to take their licks without killing the team’s chances.

Wynter, a vet who transferred to Penn State after four seasons and 1,659 points at Drexel, and Mahaffey, a newcomer who came to Penn State with no college basketball experience, have had their struggles this season. 

Wynter never averaged fewer than 11.3 points per game at Drexel. In what will be his lone season at Penn State, he’s averaging 8.8. Mahaffey has been a reliable bench player for Penn State at times. But going from a high school star to somebody who averages barely over three points and fewer than two rebounds a game is certainly an adjustment.

Against Northwestern, the true freshman and the fifth-year senior created what is, far in a way, the biggest play and greatest moment of Penn State’s season thus far.

If the team does indeed make it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, it will go down as one of the biggest plays in Penn State basketball history. 

Here’s how it happened.

With the game tied at 65 in the final seconds of overtime, Penn State’s best player, fifth-year senior Pickett, had the ball. 

As happens so often in basketball, the best player took what could have been the game-winning shot with less than 10 seconds left.

Pickett has been a hero so often for Penn State this season, and he’s the main reason the team’s still alive for the NCAA Tournament in March. 

Here was another chance for Pickett to be the man. 

Instead, he missed. 

Now, a lot of things could have happened after this. The worst possible scenario for Penn State was Northwestern getting the rebound with roughly seven seconds left, calling timeout, drawing up a play, scoring and sinking Penn State. 

Instead, a true freshman saved the day. 

Mahaffey beat out Northwestern’s Brooks Barnhizer for the rebound. 

He then kicked it out to Funk, who dished to a wide-open Wynter. 

The rest is history. 

Now, I don’t want to take anything away from Wynter’s shot. Whether it was open or contested, Wynter still had to knock it down, and even if he didn’t knock it down, Penn State wouldn’t have been in position to beat Northwestern without Wynter. Taking the game-winner out of the equation, Wynter still went 9-for-14 from the field, 3-4 from 3-point land and had 21 points. That’s good stuff. 

Nonetheless, Mahaffey was the one who made it all happen. He did the dirty work to put Wynter in a perfect situation to do his thing. If somebody had to guess who Penn State’s hero would be in Evanston, how many names would we have said before Evan Mahaffey? I say no fewer than six. 

Nonetheless, the freshman from Cincinnati did it. 

Whether Penn State makes the NCAA Tournament and how far it can go if it has the chance to dance will be determined mainly by players who won’t be here next season, and this will be especially true if Lundy doesn’t return for a fifth year. 

How successful Penn State is in the years ahead will be primarily determined by the players who are currently young bloods. 

On a wild Wednesday night in March, both types of players came up big when needed, and that should give people hope for both the present and future of Penn State basketball. 

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