Penn State loses Watkins, can’t match Michigan’s shooters and runs out of gas in 72-63 loss before big crowd
Michigan’s Duncan Robinson (22) tries to strip the ball from Penn State’s Tony Carr (10) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday night in State College.
Everyone else in the Big Ten had seemed to hit a February wall in one way or another. The Penn State Nittany Lions just picked a bad time to encounter theirs.
In a game that was turgid and arduous in all the ways the last home game was playful and free and spectacular, the Nittany Lions ran into a team and a coach who’ve been through the last month of the season before with repeated success. And they looked like they simply weren’t quite as prepared to grind for a big game this time of year.
The Michigan Wolverines of John Beilein led almost wire to wire, stamped out the Lions’ last best threat midway in the second half and asphyxiated them 72-63 before a large and disappointed crowd of 13,586 at the Jordan Center.
The game was a chore for the Nits from the get-go. They lost center Mike Watkins before the first media timeout with an apparent right knee bruise and he ended up playing only 5 total minutes after trying to go later in the first half. The preliminary diagnosis was left by PSU officials as a “right leg injury”.
That meant playing a small lineup more often against a team that picks and screens and moves with as much liveliness as any in the Big Ten.
Penn State (19-11, 9-8) did manage to reel in first-half deficits of 30-17 and 34-22 to take a 41-38 lead with a 10-0 run early in the second half. It was capped by Tony Carr’s spectacular 40-foot alley-oop pass to Lamar Stevens for a dunk that engulfed the house with 14:27 left.
But the Lions looked gassed not long after. And when Michigan pop-5 Moe Wagner hit a tough heavily guarded three from the right corner late in the shot clock, then another from deep on the left wing 90 seconds later, it seemed to deflate not just the crowd but the Lions. Michigan had a 44-43 lead and never trailed again.
After battles with two elite Big Ten sides in Ohio State and Purdue, they didn’t have quite enough in this 40.
“Any time you play that hard and compete as we did, you’re a little bit beat-up,” said PSU coach Patrick Chambers. “And I felt like we started the game like that. We were a little sluggish.
“But that’s why I love this team. We dug deep, we responded from the halftime adjustments and we took the lead. But, for the first time, I would agree we looked a little tired and winded at the end there.”
Michigan continued to get timely perimeter shots for the meat of the second half including a huge three from freshman shooting guard Jordan Poole, then an old-school running hook in the lane by soph point guard Zavier Simpson for a 56-48 advantage at 6:40 that the Nits never really challenged.
Michigan finished 10-of-21 from 3-point range and 16-of-19 from the free throw line while PSU was 7-of-18 from the arc and 6-of-11 from the stripe including a couple of one-and-one front ends.
With Watkins unavailable and bothered by Beilein’s switching defenses, the Lions’ offense reverted for much of the night to the static isolation stuff that has been the bane of their losing skids much of the year.
It didn’t hurt that Wolverine waterbug Simpson got up and under Carr (21 points on 8-of-18 FGs) and bothered his handle while Wagner jumped on him with aggressive double-teams. Beilein had the Nits scouted and, like all good coaches, intended to remove the Lions’ favorite option. They really didn’t have much of an answer other than a brief spurt by Stevens (19 points on 9-of-19 FGs).
“Zavier has become a really elite defender,” said Beilein. “He’s learned how to guard without fouls and he really can defend a lot of people.
“We also knew they were gonna post [Carr] up right away. We haven’t used the [big double-team] much lately. We just took our big man off and everybody sort of absorbed the middle. And we tried to make somebody else beat us.”
The standstill offense did not yield many trey attempts for exiting senior Shep Garner (1-of-5 3Ps, 1-of-6 FGs, 3 points)
Still, the Lions did get it back to 58-54 with the ball and 2:48 left on a Carr three and a Michigan miss. But Nazeer Bostick’s futile attempt on a driving baseline dunk attempt flew out of bounds and that was pretty much that.
It goes without saying for anyone paying attention that the loss pretty much scuttles any chance at an NCAA at-large bid for a Penn State team low on Quadrant 1 wins in the selection committee’s new team sheet. The Lions will finish their regular season at Nebraska on Sunday evening.