Penn State basketball is gaining national attention for its recent play.
The Nittany Lions pushed their winning streak to seven on Tuesday night with a 88-76 road win at Purdue. Penn State stays firmly in the Big Ten race because of another impressive victory. Winning at Purdue this season has been a nightmare for opponents. Ask Virginia. Or Michigan State. Maybe Wisconsin or Iowa. The Boilermakers beat those four teams by at least 19 points each at Mackey Arena.
So for Penn State to earn yet another Big Ten road win over a strong opponent really says something. During this seven-game stretch the Nittany Lions have wins at Michigan, Michigan State and now in West Lafayette.
But the Penn State win on Tuesday is perhaps most impressive because of the way the Nittany Lions did it.
Because this was a win for the role players. Senior forward and leading scorer Lamar Stevens (16 points) played only nine minutes of the first half with foul trouble and got off to a sluggish start. Second-leading scorer and ace shooter Myreon Jones didn’t play with illness.
Yet Penn State responded with 10 first-half threes and established a 42-30 halftime lead. The Nittany Lions pushed the lead to as much as 24 points the second half.
Big man Mike Watkins dominated inside with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Watkins’ double-double on Stevens’ slow night helped put Penn State’s offense in a rhythm because of consistent production and positive post touches. Freshman guard Seth Lundy had a career-high 18 points and six three-pointers to offset the perimeter-shooting loss of Jones. Myles Dread stepped up with 12 points — replacing some of Jones’ lost minutes. Reserve big man John Harrar stepped up 12 points, hitting some clutch free throws when Purdue made a late push.
Penn State only shoots 32 percent from three-point range on the season. To hit a season-high 14 three-pointers without Jones, a 41 percent three-point shooter, is a massive confidence boost. Penn State’s offense only had eight turnovers. The Nittany Lions are hitting their stride at the right time.
A game behind Maryland in the loss column atop the Big Ten standings, the remaining schedule isn’t exceedingly difficult for Penn State. Two of the seven games left come against Northwestern.
This recent stretch also proves that Penn State basketball, for the first time in years, might be a real threat for an NCAA tournament run because of its overall talent. At one point, this team sat 12-5 and only 2-4 in the Big Ten. A three-game losing streak put Penn State in jeopardy of a tailspin. The Nittany Lions responded with four straight road wins. They’ve placed themselves in a strong spot for the rest of the conference schedule.
Penn State hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2001. This is the latest in the season the Nittany Lions have been this high in the Big Ten standings in 34 years. The unlikely story of Penn State basketball competing for a Big Ten title in mid-February has turned into one of college basketball’s most surprising stories this season.