To call the 2011 Penn State basketball season a roller-coaster ride would be an understatement. At several points, it appeared the Nittany Lions had lost all hope of making the NCAA Tournament, but alas, they found ways to persevere when they absolutely needed to en route to earning a No. 10 seed in their first tournament appearance since 2001. Here are the top 10 moments from what will go down as a very memorable year in Happy Valley.
Honorable Mention: February 24. Penn State 66, Northwestern 52. With March only days away, Penn State found itself with still just one road win on the season when it traveled to Evanston to take on the Wildcats for the second time in 2011. As usual, the 'Cats helped the Lions get their swagger back, yielding 56.5 percent shooting and a 28-19 rebounding margin to Penn State. The team's postseason hopes remained intact.
Honorable Mention: December 4. Penn State 77, Duquesne 73. After David Jackson and Billy Oliver went down with injuries early against the Dukes, Talor Battle stepped up and delivered one of the best performances of his Penn State career to keep the Lions afloat. The senior guard's 31 points and eight rebounds were instrumental in helping the Blue and White hold on for the win, as were Jeff Brooks' 17 points and seven rebounds.
10. January 15 / January 19. Ohio State 69, Penn State 66 / Purdue 63, Penn State 62. Some felt Penn State's upsets of Michigan State and Illinois at home were fluky in nature and few were ready to take the Lions seriously just yet. After narrow losses at No. 2 Ohio State and No. 13 Purdue, however, many began to realize the team might have the makings of a special group. There are no moral victories in college basketball, but whatever momentum was gained from the home upsets was maintained by sticking right with a pair of the best teams in the country.
9. December 27. Penn State 69, Indiana 60. Following a humiliating and devastating loss against Maine at home on Dec. 21, Penn State desperately needed a win in its conference opener at Indiana for damage control. The big senior scoring trio of Talor Battle, Jeff Brooks and David Jackson responded big-time, combining for 57 of the team's 69 points in the victory.
8. February 13. Penn State 65, Northwestern 41. Penn State's momentum appeared broken by mid-February, as the Lions found themselves in the depths of a three-game losing streak to Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State. The team responded at home, however, by dominating Northwestern to get back on the winning track. Four Lions finished in double-figures and got a win they absolutely had to have.
7. March 6. Penn State 66, Minnesota 63. By early March, Penn State had a realistic shot of playing its way into the NCAA Tournament at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. The Lions needed a win against the Golden Gophers at the Barn to maintain that opportunity, and they got the job done. Behind Talor Battle's 22 points and Jeff Brooks 20 points and seven rebounds, the Lions survived a couple of late charges by Minnesota to escape with another important road win.
6. January 8 / January 11. Penn State 66, No. 19 Michigan State 62 / Penn State 57, No. 16 Illinois 55. The Lions opened the New Year with losses against Michigan on the road and Purdue at home. By that point, most people had written the them off completely. Then, in a span of four days, Penn State came alive for a pair of season-saving upsets against the Spartans and Fighting Illini at home that sparked the fanbase and gave a glimmer of hope that dancing in March might still be possible. The Michigan State win saw all four senior starters finish in double figures.
5. January 29. Penn State 56, No. 15 Wisconsin 52. The Lions closed an up-and-down January with a bang, upsetting a a very solid Wisconsin team in front of a packed house at the Jordan Center. Neither coach Ed DeChellis nor his senior class had ever beaten the Badgers, but on this day, a balanced attack and slow pace played into the Lions' hands as they earned a real resume booster heading into February.
4. March 11. Penn State 36, No. 13 Wisconsin 33. It was ugly. Oh my, was it ugly. But Penn State earned its biggest victory since the 2001 NCAA Tournament when it upset Wisconsin again, this time in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. Talor Battle struggled and no Lions finished in double figures, but thanks to suffocating defense that forced the Badgers into bad shots all night, Penn State lived to fight another day in a gruesome game.
3. March 12. Penn State 61, Michigan State 48. The Lions appeared on CBS for the first time in a decade when they faced the Spartans in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament. The announcing crew of Steve Kerr, Clark Kellogg and Jim Nantz took pot shots at their resume all afternoon, all while praising Tom Izzo and the Spartans, but Penn State punched its NCAA Tournament ticket before their very eyes anyway. Tim Frazier broke out for 22 points, six assists and eight rebounds in his best all-around effort of the season, and Talor Battle had 25 points, including a barrage of four straight three-pointers to open the second half to bury Sparty. It was all but official. Penn State was going back to the NCAA Tournament.
2. March 17. Temple 66, Penn State 64. Juan Fernandez's last-second dagger to beat Penn State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament will hurt Lion fans for a while. The excitement of playing in the NCAA Tournament, however, is something players and fans alike should celebrate for a long, long time. The Lions don't make the Big Dance often. In fact, they've only been there four times since Joe Paterno became the football team's head coach. For once, though, Penn State gave its fans 40 minutes of the best March Madness has to offer, and that's worth remembering fondly despite the outcome.
It was only last February when Minnesota dealt Penn State its 11th straight loss to open conference play in the exact same fashion (a Lawrence Westbrook buzzer-beater), and by the exact same score. The progress the Lions made in just one year is nothing short of remarkable. Forget the final score. Penn State's appearance in the 2011 NCAA Tournament was still special.
1. March 13: Selection Sunday. For years, Penn State basketball fans have yearned for nothing more than a competitive squad. The morning on Selection Sunday, then, had to have felt like something out of a dream. Not only were the Lions set to take on Ohio State for a Big Ten Tournament championship, but they were in the driver's seat for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The Buckeyes went on to take care of business and beat the Lions in the title game, but less than an hour later, whatever bad feelings that loss brought yielded pandemonium across Nittany Nation when "Penn State" flashed across the screen during the tournament selection show on CBS.
The struggles of the last 10 years only made that moment, one Penn State fans will remember for a long, long time, all the more sweet.