By Arielle Sargent, GoPSUSports.com
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Arriving at seemingly just the right time, the ball bounced toward Penn State today as the No. 13 seeded Nittany Lions knocked off No. 12 Nebraska in a 76-67 overtime decision in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Penn State's metaphorical bounce in the right direction wasn't all luck though, as Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers has routinely preached the Nittany Lions would have to earn the right for the ball to bounce the right way, often on the other end of some unpleasant bounces in the regular season.
Come tournament time, Penn State jumped out to fast start, using a 7-0 run to featuring a dunk and a block by Mike Watkins to send the Nittany Lions ahead by nine, 22-13. As Watkins collected his first foul of the evening, the Huskers went 1-2 from the free throw line to trim the gap. Following Lamar Stevens' first 3-pointer of the day, Watkins connected on a layup to push the Penn State advantage to double figures.
Nebraska came storming back, tying the score at 30-30 with less than five minutes to play off of a 3-pointer from leading scorer Tai Webster, who the Nittany Lions later limited to just two second-half points. Penn State regrouped, ratcheting up the defense before heading into the locker room with a five-point lead, 38-33.
At the very core of Penn State's regrouping effort, Watkins led the way, entering halftime with a team-high 10 points, five blocks and five rebounds, breaking a Nittany Lion single season freshman rebounds record originally set in 1952.
"Before the game in warmups, I just saw how locked in he was," Josh Reaves said. "Every time we get that Mike it's a problem."
"That Mike" was merely heating up.
Despite Nebraska shaving the Penn State advantage just one in the early part of the second half, Watkins sparked a 10-4 run with a jumper and a slam, before Shep Garner drained consecutive triples to lift the Nittany Lions ahead by nine, 50-41, with 11:27 to play.
As quickly as Penn State built its advantage though, the Huskers responded, arriving within one twice more, tying the score off of a 3-pointer from Glynn Watson Jr. with less than a minute to play.
Finding his way to the foul line, Carr went 2-2 to put Penn State on top by two, but Nebraska responded again to tie the score, 60-60.
With Carr unable to get to the line again, an audible inhale swelled among the Penn State bench as the Huskers heaved a near half court shot out of the break with just a few seconds on the clock.
Dinging the left side of the backboard, the shot was no good and the Nittany Lions were headed to overtime.
The ball had bounced toward Penn State and it was time for the Nittany Lions to step up and earn it.
Pulling up for his second attempt of the day, Sevens opened overtime with his second 3-pointer on the night the Nittany Lions didn't look back.
"It was huge," Chambers said, reflecting on the perfectly timed 3-ball. "The other thing is, he earned the right to make that shot. He's in the gym shooting those shots so it goes in and I wasn't surprised."
Equally as undeniably huge though, was the performance from Watkins, who took control of the Nittany Lion defense that limited the Huskers to fewer than 70 points for the 11th time this season. Penn State's magic number, the Nittany Lions are 11-0 when holding opponents to 70 or fewer points on the year.
Watkins led the Nittany Lions on the boards with 11 rebounds, adding a Big Ten Tournament record eight blocks. His presence was also critical to the offensive side of the ball, finishing with a team-high 18 points for his eighth double-double of the season.
"He has the ability to do that every night on any given night against any given team," Reaves said. "It's crazy to watch and it's very comforting to have a big guy back there who is able to do that and he just cleans up the glass like - well it is his job, but it's crazy to watch."
For Chambers, Watkins played with pure desire, which ultimately proved key when it came down to execution, staying on his feet and keeping high hands to avoid costly foul trouble.
"He knew exactly how he was going to go out and compete," Chambers said. "He bought into the game plan since Monday, that kid is absolutely invested in Penn State basketball and I think that's what you saw today," Chambers said.
It wasn't just Watkins who arrived at the Verizon Center with a laser-like focus though.
"Everyone just dialed in playing defense and they made their runs but we didn't deflate, we banned together and we played a lot harder," Reaves said. "It was definitely one of the better games defensively that we've played all year and I'm just so proud that we were able to get it done."
All part of the process, the "dialing in" began days in advance, as Chambers noted the Nittany Lions asked to return to their October style practices, their roots, in order to prepare for a Big Ten battle between two tough teams.
"We had a good practice," Chambers said. "Short and hard, we went old school a little bit. A little dive drill, a little charge drill, keeping everybody on their toes."
Emphasizing all week that the tougher team would emerge with the victory, Chambers took his Nittany Lions back to the grind and the team returned with just the amount of grit needed to advance.
"They wanted it, they said we have to go back a little bit to get our roots and get our identity," Chambers said. "We found our identity today."Penn State returns to action tomorrow at approximately 2:30 p.m. (BTN), meeting fifth-ranked Michigan State. The Spartans went 18-13 overall and 9-8 in conference games earning first round bye heading in to the Big Ten Tournament.