The Penn State men's basketball team isn't likely going to NCAA Tournament this season. Doing so would require a miracle Big Ten Tournament run, which would in turn require an additional year of eligibility for Talor Battle and Jamelle Cornley. Still, this campaign has taken a pleasantly surprising turn since the Lions lost their first six conference games.
Wins in four out of six Big Ten games? A pair of road upsets in which Penn State trailed by double digits in the second half? A realistic chance at an NIT bid? I'll take all of it after that nightmarish first half of January.
Speaking of nightmarish first halves, the Penn State defense couldn't get a stop during the first part of Wednesday night's win over Indiana. Troy Williams and Will Sheehey used the Lions' defense as the background on their personal poster shoots, and the Hoosiers shot 59 percent before halftime to take a 36-30 lead.
Not much changed in the next 17 minutes. Penn State played well enough so that the game didn't get out of hand, but every time they threatened to make a run, Yogi Ferrell and the Hoosiers were there to answer. My friend who I usually text during games declared the game over when D.J. Newbill was called for charging with five minutes left and the Lions down by nine. I reluctantly agreed.
My friend's text was a big part of the reason I kept watching the game, though. Between my irrational optimism (it comes with the program) and my friend's uncanny ability to "jinx" any game he says is over, something magical was bound to happen.
Penn State wouldn't get the deficit to eight points until Newbill canned a trey with under 2:30 to play. That's conveniently when the plague of Indiana turnovers began. A five-second violation led to five straight Brandon Taylor points (he's alive!), and a Tim Frazier steal allowed Ross Travis to hit a free throw and cut the IU lead to just one with 14 seconds left.
It seemed at that point that PSU would need to foul and go the length of the floor to equalize, but instead the Hoosiers turned it over again, with Newbill intercepting an errant pass around midcourt. The Lions now had 12 seconds to go for the win.
Instead of isolating Newbill like he did at the end of the Ohio State game, head coach Pat Chambers opted to give Frazier the opportunity to play hero. With Indiana locked in tight man-to-man defense, the super senior ditched Ferrell with a beautiful crossover and found his path to the rim uninterrupted by Noah Vonleh, who was pulled from the paint by Taylor.
Frazier easily connected on a layup to give PSU its first lead of the game, and Ferrell's game-winning jumper attempt fell off the mark. The Lions had defeated Indiana 66-65.
Maybe all this game does is make it tougher for Indiana to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Maybe all it does is make Tom Crean's job status a little more dicey. For now, though, there is hope that the Lions can go 3-3 the rest of the way and qualify for the college basketball postseason. That's something that didn't seem possible with three minutes left in the second half.