By Jeff Rice, Special to GoPSUSports.com
NEW YORK -- One-possession games were sources of frustration for Penn State in the not-so-distant past.
They're becoming sources of triumph for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State's 69-68 win over second-seeded Ohio State before a fired-up crowd at Madison Square Garden on Friday night was its fifth victory in games decided by five or fewer points and the third win in its last four of those contests.
A season after finishing 4-8 in games decided by six or fewer points or in overtime, the Nittany Lions are learning to finish opponents off and deliver down the stretch, and they have their sophomore point guard to thank for that.
After pouring in 25 points for the second straight night, Tony Carr is now averaging 27.7 points in three games against the Buckeyes this season, and he made the play of the night, finding Josh Reaves for the decisive dunk with four seconds remaining.
"I knew he would make the right decision," Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. "That's why I didn't call a timeout."
It was one example of terrific execution in a tight spot, which was preceded by another at the defensive end -- senior guard Shep Garner knocking the ball away from Ohio State's Keita Bates-Diop, the Big Ten Player of the Year, which set up the go-ahead basket.
The Nittany Lions are now 16-1 this season when they hold an opponent below 70 points. They jumped on the Buckeyes early, charging out to a 12-4 lead, then held off a big charge from Bates-Diop just enough to pull out their third straight win over Ohio State and their sixth win in their last nine games overall. Despite having to play more defense "below the rim," as Garner put it, without injured big man Mike Watkins, the Nittany Lions are playing as a unit on the defensive end and with unselfishness on offense.
"They understand their roles very well," Chambers said. "They're talking to each other out there. They're taking over huddles."
Carr, who buried a deep 3-pointer to beat Ohio State during the regular season, matched Bates-Diop's game-high 25 points in a matchup of the conference's two most dynamic scorers. But it was his passing after drawing a second defender that led to some of the Nittany Lions' biggest buckets, Reaves' being one and a feed that led to a dunk from Julian Moore that cut Ohio State's lead to 66-64 with two minutes remaining.
Two big free throws from Reaves got Penn State within one point, 68-67, with 47 seconds remaining, and the Nittany Lions nodded their heads with confidence during the ensuing timeout. After Garner's steal with 16 seconds left, Carr and Reaves turned that confidence into a victory-sealing play, keeping Penn State's NCAA Tournament hopes alive for at least one more day.
"I was definitely tired by the five-minute mark," said Carr, who played 36 minutes. "But we put in so much work this offseason and I wanted to win so bad, so you dig down deep."