If you haven’t followed Penn State basketball the past couple of seasons, you probably thought the Nittany Lions had a great shot at upsetting No. 4 Maryland on Wednesday. After all, the Lions led by 10 points midway through the second half and still clung to two-point lead with just 3:12 remaining. But if you are a Penn State fan, there’s a good chance you had a sinking feeling that the Lions weren’t going to be able to hold on. Not just because the Terrapins are one of the most talented teams in the country, but because Penn State has had a habit in recent years of playing top teams close only to lose at the end. Just last season, the Lions lost 10 games by single-digits to teams in the Big Ten.
That’s why it wasn’t surprising at all to see Penn State come out on the wrong end of a 70-64 game against Maryland. Despite holding the Terrapins to a 33 percent shooting performance, the Lions weren’t able to contain freshman stud Diamond Stone, who scored 39 points and went 19-25 from the free throw line.
I realize this is starting to sound like a super-negative piece, but it’s not intended to be. Because while it’s disappointing to see Penn State just miss upsetting a top-team, the reality is its impressive Penn State is still able to play with teams like Maryland in what is being looked at as a rebuilding year.
If you think back to those oh-so-close losses last season, it was typically D.J. Newbill carrying Penn State against teams like Maryland, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa. He was the one hitting clutch baskets in the fourth quarter to keep the Lions in the game, which is why plenty of fans and media types wondered if the Lions would even be able to keep games close in his absence. That’s why one of the most encouraging things about Wednesday night’s game was that the Lions got big performances from Brandon Taylor and Shep Garner, two players who have been counted on to provide most of Penn State’s scoring. Taylor scored 15 points on 7-of-12 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds, while Garner scored 17 points and hit three 3-pointers.
Some people (myself included) doubted whether Taylor and Garner had it in them to carry the Lions scoring load, but so far the pair has been productive. They still have to prove they can do it all season, but last night’s performance was a good first step. It’s fair to ask whether the Nittany Lions will ever become better in the closing minutes of games, something that has haunted Pat Chambers’ teams the past few seasons. But when you’re considered one of the bottom-feeders in the Big Ten, there’s nothing wrong with playing a (potential) national title contender competitively for 40 minutes. As I’ve written before, this season is about progression for the Nittany Lions, and if their young players get experience playing in tight games in-conference, that’ll only benefit them down the road.
Yes, another season of coming up just short will be frustrating to some degree. But it’s important to remember that things could get much worse for Penn State this season than losing some tough games to good teams. And if they keep playing like this on a consistent basis, it’s hard to think they won’t upset at least one team in 2016.