Needing a win to pull back to .500 in conference play and keep NCAA Tournament hopes alive, Penn State's seniors did what they had to do on Saturday against Michigan State as the Nittany Lions defeated the Spartans 66-62 in their second conference win of the 2010-2011 season.
Jeff Brooks registered another double-double for the Nittany Lions (9-6, 2-2) with 17 points and 12 rebounds. His fellow seniors also came up big. Center Andrew Jones turned in his best offensive performance of the season with 16 points, David Jackson added 11 points and seven rebounds and Talor Battle hit what would prove to be the game-winning shot with 18 seconds to play from the right corner.
It was a performance the players weren't afraid to fawn after following the game.
"We feel as if, when our four seniors play pretty well, defensively and offensively, we give ourselves a great chance to win," Brooks said. "Hopefully all four of us can keep this rolling.
The win over the Spartans (10-5, 2-1) gives the Lions their first win over a top-25 opponent this season. It also gets them back on a winning track after losing four of their past five games and in the middle of a five game stretch against top-25 opponents.
Penn State dominated the boards against Michigan State, out rebounding the Spartans 40-36 overall and 15-13 on the offensive glass. The Spartans had averaged about six more rebounds per game than the Lions, but Penn State made rebounding a point of emphasis and it paid off.
"Every game that we do a great job rebounding, we're in those games," Brooks said. "When we played Purdue, they beat us by 15 on the boards and we lost by 15 points. It's all a correlation."
Penn State also made up ground against Michigan State from the foul line. The Spartans struggled to a 10-20 effort from the stripe while the Lions shot 15-23. Penn State also found ways to contain the potent Michigan State front court combination of Delvon Roe and Draymond Green to 12 points, down from their combined average of just over 19 points per game.
For the Spartans, it was a deflating loss after opening conference play 2-0 and left coach Tom Izzo searching for answers.
"This was one of the most disappointing losses of my career" Izzo said. "I thought we had one of our best weeks of practice and we just didn't do the things you need to do."
The Lions got another big performance off the bench from red shirt freshman Jermaine Marshall, who followed up his 18 point effort against Purdue on Wednesday night with an eight point afternoon against Michigan State.
His teammates were very pleased with his contributions.
"He's a confident kid," Battle said. ("Not cocky," Brooks added) "You can just tell how he plays. He hit some big shots for us today. I said 'You don't know how important eight points off the bench is. Eight when we all (the seniors) finish is double figures is huge."
Penn State now prepares to take on No. 25 Illinois on Tuesday night back at the Jordan Center. The Fighting Illini demolished Northwestern 88-63 on Thursday evening and beat Penn State in both match ups between the teams last year.
Jackson believes the win over Sparty gives Penn State something to build on, though, heading into another tough contest.
"It's huge for us," Jackson said. "Michigan State's a great team. Us beating them and playing how we know we can play really gives us confidence. This just lets us know that if we can play with them and beat them and compete against them that we can play with anybody."