Men’s Basketball: Upset: Penn State shocks NU

Danny Daly

Penn State defeated Northwestern 81-70 at Welsh-Ryan Arena Wednesday.

By this point in the season, Northwestern is usually far enough out of contention that its main objective is to spoil its opponents’ postseason dreams. On Wednesday night, the Wildcats found out how it feels to be the team whose hopes are ruined.

NU suffered its second setback in two weeks against a Big Ten bottomfeeder, falling 81-70 at home to Penn State. The Nittany Lions’ first conference win of the year all but cost the Cats a shot at their first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.

“It’s a tough one to swallow,” junior point guard Michael Thompson said.

Poor defense has plagued the Cats in their last few games, and Wednesday night was no exception. The Nittany Lions shot better than 56 percent from the field despite the struggles of Big Ten leading scorer Talor Battle, who battled flu-like symptoms and made only two baskets. Forward David Jackson and guard Chris Babb stepped up, chipping in 20 points each.

“We made timely shots, and that’s something we haven’t done,” Penn State coach Ed DeChellis said. “We shared the ball very, very well, though that hasn’t been a problem for us. The problem has been making shots. I saw the (NU student section) shirts out there, ‘Make shots.’ Tonight we made shots.”

Penn State (9-16, 1-12 Big Ten) scored on each of its first three possessions, putting NU (17-9, 6-8) in an early hole and setting the tone for the rest of the night. Neither team could get much separation in the first half-the Cats had the best chance to pull away after taking a 27-22 lead seven minutes before intermission, but the Nittany Lions poured in the next nine points.

Trailing 36-32 at the break, NU clicked offensively at the beginning of the second half, but its defense still couldn’t stop Penn State from scoring. Even though senior guard Jeremy Nash made a layup and a 3-pointer in the opening minute, the Cats gained almost no ground because the Nittany Lions scored easy baskets on the other end. Sophomore forward John Shurna punctuated a breakaway steal with a dunk, energizing the crowd and cutting the deficit to one, but center Andre Jones slammed one home for the Nittany Lions a few seconds later to suck the air out of Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“They kept that lead at five or six, which really hurt us,” Nash said.

NU had other chances to surge ahead, but it didn’t take advantage. Sophomore center Luka Mirkovic’s 0-for-6 performance at the foul line didn’t help matters-and was especially odd considering he went 6-for-7 from the field. The Cats seemed poised to seize control with eight minutes to go, having scored six straight points to climb within 56-54, until the Nittany Lions went back to scoring almost every time down the court. They also outrebounded the hosts 24-10 in the second half.

Coach Bill Carmody shuffled between his 1-3-1 and matchup zone defenses, occasionally pressing the Nittany Lions full court. Nothing worked.

“It was we score, they score, we score, they score,” Carmody said. “We were never able to get any stops throughout the evening. We didn’t put enough pressure on the ball probably, and they were just a little too comfortable against (the 1-3-1). They got too many open looks.”

It was never a one-possession game again after that. The closest NU came was when Mirkovic’s layup with 2:15 remaining trimmed Penn State’s lead to 69-65. Then Babb hit a baseline jumper with the shot clock winding down-his only field goal attempt from inside the arc-and the Cats were effectively finished. The Nittany Lions made 17 of their 20 free throws after intermission to seal the unlikely victory.[email protected]