Last season, it seemed like Penn State couldn't buy a late win. The Nittany Lions fell by five points or less nine times, and perhaps no defeat epitomized the agony of those near misses more than their 66-64 loss at home to Minnesota on a buzzer-beater by Lawrence Westbrook on Feb. 6.
That heartbreak begot Penn State's "one more" motto this past offseason, as the Lions made it their goal to come up with clutch plays to win those tight games late in 2010-2011, and Thursday night, against the same Golden Gophers who tortured them last season, Penn State got it done late.
Talor Battle's three pointer with 1:12 remaining put Penn State ahead for good Thursday night in its 66-63 victory against Minnesota at the Bryce Jordan Center, giving the Lions their second-best win, RPI-wise, of the season and a crucial victory for their NCAA Tournament resume.
After narrowly escaping with a first half lead thanks to foul trouble by Andrew Jones and Jeff Brooks early in the frame, Penn State came out strong in the second half, building a 10 point lead midway through the period. The Lions watched that lead dwindle, however, and with under two minutes to play, the Gophers held a three-point lead.
A tip in from Andrew Jones, however, as well as Battle's three put Penn State ahead, giving it a lead it would not relinquish.
David Jackson, who finished the evening with 13 points, five rebounds and an assist, was pleased to get the late win.
"This was another close game and it came down to the wire," Jackson said. "We're starting to win these games unlike last year when we lost a lot of the close games, and we're really learning how to play late in games whether we're down or whether we have a lead and it's close. I think that's pretty positive."
Battle's late triple was a microcosm of his night. The senior guard was 7-14 from beyond the arc on the evening.
He also scored a game high 28 points, grabbed to rebounds and notched an assist in, but the three ball was the key for both Battle and Penn State as a whole, as it took 31 deep ones against the Gophers, hitting 12 for 38,7%.
The senior said after the game that the game plan wasn't to take so many deep shots, but that the Lions didn't have a whole lot of choices.
"They were in a zone, so there wasn't too much you could do," Battle said. "They're so big that it was hard to score in the paint."
It was also hard for Penn State to do really anything down low. The Gophers dominated Penn State on the boards, winning the rebound margin 34-22 overall and 9-7 on the offensive glass.
Trevor Mbakwe finished with a double-double, 16 points and 10 rebounds, with 10 of those boards coming in the first half. Colton Iverson grabbed nine rebounds of his own to help Minnesota to it's big margin.
Penn State coach Ed DeChellis blamed the absence of Jeff Brooks and Andrew Jones in the first half due to foul trouble for some of the reobunding woes.
"The first half, we didn't have those two guys," DeChellis said. "I thought if we could just hang in there we'd be OK, rebounding wise. When you take Jeff's eight and Drew's size away...it's hard."
The Lions will now head to Wisconsin on Sunday with a matchup against the No. 11 Badgers at the Kohl Center. Penn State won the last meeting of the two squads 56-52 in Happy Valley, but Wisconsin got the better of Penn State in Madison last season, winning 79-71 in overtime.
DeChellis believes his team will be ready to go.
"We were reeling a week ago and we got [Northwestern] and we needed this one and got this one, so the kids are feeling pretty good," DeChellis said. "We'll go in there on Sunday and it'll be a great atmosphere up there."