Another Big Ten game, another overtime. In a contest that Nebraska never led in, the Penn State Nittany Lions defeated the Cornhuskers 76-67.
Nebraska established their game plan early. The Cornhuskers worked the ball inside and attacked the rim against an undersized Penn State interior. It was quickly evident, however, that Nittany Lions forward Mike Watkins wasn’t going to let that happen. Watkins frequently swatted inside shots and kept the rim clean for Penn State, finishing with a Big Ten tournament record 8 blocks. The freshman also added a team high 18 points and 11 rebounds to his monstrous performance.
With under five minutes to go and Penn State up nine, the Cornhuskers mounted a furious comeback. A 12-3 Nebraska run was capped off by a Glynn Watson Jr. three with 20 seconds remaining. On the ensuing Penn State possession, a missed layup by Tony Carr prevented any last second Nittany Lion heroics and the game headed to overtime.
As Penn State jumped out an early five-point lead in the extra frame, things went from bad to worse for Nebraska. Star guard Tai Webster missed the front end of a 1 and 1, turned the ball over, and ultimately fouled out with 3:24 remaining. While finishing with 12 points, the senior only shot 4-16 in his final game as a Cornhusker.
Penn State dominated the overtime. The Nittany Lions went 10-10 from the free throw line and pulled away for good. Overall the team finished 21-26 from the stripe.
Following their elimination, the 12-19 Nebraska squad’s season is over. For Penn State, hope stays alive as they take on the Michigan State Spartans in Thursday’s second game in D.C.
What We Learned:
1. Nebraska Has a Roster That Will Compete Next Year
The only senior leaving Nebraska this year is Tai Webster. While his large shoes will be difficult to fill, Glynn Watson Jr. will certainly do his best. The sophomore finished the season averaging 13.1 points, 3 rebounds, and 2.6 assists. His 1.6 steals per game were good for third best in the Big Ten. Watson Jr. is incredibly athletic and active, and his up-tempo style is unrelenting. The Webster-less Cornhuskers are left in good hands.
In addition to Watson Jr., Nebraska will return a strong core of young players. Sophomore Ed Morrow and freshman Jordy Tshimanga create a tough front court for opponents on the interior. The two big men show tremendous activity in the paint, particularly on the glass.
2. Penn State Has Developed an Offensive Identity
Shep Garner and Payton Banks have often been at odds with Tony Carr on who will run the offense for Penn State this season. Their victory over Nebraska provided clarity to the picture.
Carr orchestrated the offense and dictated tempo. The Nittany Lions ran a more structured and controlled offense than what was demonstrated during their five-game losing streak to end the regular season. Primarily utilizing the pick and roll, their offense suits Carr’s ability to attack the rim and find open shooters. With Watkins as the primary screener, he is freed up to push his momentum towards the basket and clean up misses or throw down at the rim when his defender leaves to help.
Much more effective as spot up shooters, Garner and Banks benefit as well. By spacing the floor and allowing Carr to create, the shooters gain more open looks as the defense collapses on the paint. Garner and Banks had great looks against Nebraska, and the Nittany Lions had their fewest three point attempts since the overtime loss to Purdue on February 21st.
3. Mike Watkins has Emerged
As the Nittany Lions only interior threat, Mike Watkins is a big key to the team’s success. In Penn State’s previous game against Nebraska, the freshman forward was invisible and the Nittany Lions were gashed in the paint. The blowout loss saw Nebraska win the rebounding battle 40-29. In their Big Ten Tournament win, Penn State won rebounding 45-41 and Watkins’ effort on the glass was a catalyst.
Watkins set the tone early. He blocked and altered shots at the rim, ultimately throwing a wrench in the Nebraska gameplan. The Cornhuskers showed difficulty recovering. By halftime, Watkins had 10 points, 5 blocks and 4 rebounds.
With Nick Ward and Miles Bridges next for the Nittany Lions, Watkins will need to continue his otherworldly play for the team to stand a chance. In their last meeting, Watkins performed well, scoring 11 points and grabbing 9 rebounds. For Penn State to stay alive in the Big Ten Tournament, he will likely have to do better.
For Nebraska, their disappointing season is capped off with more disappointment. Not all is lost though. They are returning a talented roster, as well as their coach. Immediately following the game, Nebraska’s AD announced Tim Miles would be returning next season.
Penn State advances and will take on the Michigan State Spartans. In their last meeting, the Nittany Lions knocked off the Spartans 72-63. Michigan State, though, has played much better as of late and are not the same team from early January. Plus, the overtime minutes will not do any favors for the Nittany Lions’ legs. Penn State’s chances are slim, but they are desperate. Crazier things have happened in March.