CHICAGO — For Penn State Basketball, the wait is over.
The Nittany Lions will be playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. That is what fans have been latching onto for the last 24 hours after witnessing a heartbreaking loss in Chicago.
Personally, my dad and I have this tradition dating back to the 2011 Big Ten Tournament that whenever the football or basketball team made it to the conference championship we would drive out to the game.
We witnessed Talor Battle and that 2011 team come up short against No. 1 Ohio State in Indianapolis. In 2016, we got to watch Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley lead Penn State to its first Big Ten Championship game win.
So, when the Nittany Lions knocked off Northwestern on Friday and looked to be playing their best basketball of the season, the thought started to creep in my head and began looking at drive times to Chicago. Then came the Indiana game in which Penn State dominated pretty much from start to finish and we left Saturday night headed west.
Winning the title would be a challenge, after all Penn State was the 10 seed and Purdue the No. 1 seed and ranked No. 5 nationally. Add that to the fact the Boilermakers had dominated the Nittany Lions in their two regular season matchups and it was hard to stay optimistic. I couldn’t get over the potential missed opportunity of not being there when Penn State Basketball won their first Big Ten Championship.
The odds of them winning a regular season title are as close to zero as you can get so the conference tournament is the best shot. While the outcome was more of what I expected and not hoped, here are some takeaways about the experience in the windy city.
Looking Back on Penn State Basketball’s B1G Run, Ahead to NCAA Tourney
Penn State Basketball never was able to fully get in rhythm in this game.
Credit that to the tired legs, but mostly credit it to solid defense by the Boilermakers. The three-point shot never seemed to really get going. Penn State shot 2-8 in the 1st half from deep and finished 7-23 (30.4%). That is about 3 to 4 makes below their season average.
If the Nittany Lions could have hit a few more there is a chance they win this game.
Purdue seemed to be in control for the entire game until late when Penn State decided to full court press the final 4 minutes.
I wonder if things could have been different had Micah Shrewsberry decided to go with the press earlier in the half. The freshmen guards for Purdue were flustered and making a ton of mistakes that ultimately let Penn State back into the game.
One of the more underrated key moments was the one free throw that was missed all game. Lundy was fouled with 2:53 remaining and Penn State down 62-56. He missed the front end of the one and one resulting in an empty possession.
I don’t know how much those two points could have changed things, but if he had made both the steal by Mahaffey late could have been to give Penn State a 67-66 lead with 11 seconds left.
Who is to say what would have happened the next possession, but it is something that was replaying in my mind during the 12-hour drive home. Despite everything Penn State had a chance to win the game with 3.3 seconds remaining. It was clear that Shrewsberry was trying to draw up a play to get Andrew Funk a 3-pointer to win the game, but Purdue did a great job of making sure that he wasn’t going to be the guy to beat them.
Lundy had picked up his 5th foul a few minutes earlier so that eliminated the second option. Leaving either Wynter or Dread to take the final shot.
I thought Dread did a great job grabbing the inbound in a tight window and giving Wynter a chance. What hurts the most is the fact that he was unable to get a shot off and ended up traveling. I think I could have lived if the shot rolled off the rim and Penn State lost.
At least then the chance to win was there and it just didn’t happen. Traveling in that situation will leave many Penn State fans with the biggest what if for the rest of time. Ultimately, I was proud with the way that the team fought at the end of the game and the finish gave me more confidence going into the tournament that this team could possibly pull off some upsets and win a game or two.
Big Ten Tournament Atmosphere
Obviously, I only showed up for the championship game, so I didn’t get the full experience, but it was cool seeing all the different teams represented.
Walking through the concourse I saw representation from pretty much every team in the conference.
There were Indiana fans that thought they were going to be in the championship and showed up to root against their rival. There were also Minnesota fans who didn’t have any expectations for the tournament at all but rather just came for the experience.
I think it was cool that people stuck around after their teams were eliminated and is part of what makes conference championship week so special.
The United Center was a great venue and although not completely sold out, it maintained that championship feel.
Either way the place got extremely loud in tense moments and for the final 3 or 4 minutes of the game when Penn State Basketball made it close the entire arena was on its feet and locked into the game.
I would like to go for the entire tournament in the future, and from everything I heard from other fans it is a great experience.
In the meantime, hopefully the Nittany Lions can get back to the title game before the year 2035.
I want to start by saying that I think success changes a fanbase for better or worse. The more that you win the more entitled you feel.
Think about the way that Ohio State football fans carry themselves in the Big Ten, and rightfully so, as they have dominated the conference for the last decade.
I would say many Penn State football fans have a similar mentality when playing the teams in the bottom of the conference. All the Purdue fans at least in my section were so delusional I found myself not able to contain my laughter.
Every single foul called on the Boilermakers was a crime against humanity, while Penn State foul calls didn’t go far enough.
Meanwhile Zach Edey pushes defenders out of the way and somehow never gets a 3-second call. Of course, being outnumbered 5 to 1 there isn’t much you can even say as a Penn State fan in that situation.
There was a gentleman sitting a few rows behind me who was convinced that the referees were out to get Purdue and that the game wasn’t being officiated fairly. He was so vocal about the smallest things it honestly reminded me of going to a sporting event in Philadelphia.
It is important to note that while he was complaining about the calls Penn State was called for 20 fouls compared to Purdue’s 14. This isn’t to say that all Purdue fans are bad, I want to make that clear. There weren’t any fans jumping in our face or yelling chanting F***K Penn State. I was approached by multiple fans of other Big Ten teams in the concourse saying how they were rooting for Penn State to win the game. Many were rooting for the underdog story, but many also just didn’t like Purdue.
I think it was more of just what comes with the territory of having a winning basketball program.
My biggest wish was Cam Wynter being able to hit that game winning shot so I could have just turned around and smiled at the rowdy Boilermakers behind me.
Dancing in March
I think if you told most Penn State basketball fans heading into the season that this team would make the NCAA Tournament that would have been considered a success.
Shrewsberry brought in a solid recruiting class and a few transfers that gave optimism that the team was at least going to be more competitive than 2022 and could compete for a bubble spot. Going 19-12 (10-10) was my preseason prediction, but that was if all the pieces fit together as expected.
I think the impact of Funk and Wynter as both scorers and leaders was something many fans couldn’t have anticipated entering the season. The progression of Pickett as an all-around player has been one of the most exciting watches of the season. He is the heart and soul of this team and the fact that we will be able to see him in March is going to be incredible. Penn State will get a tough matchup with Texas A&M when they tip off at 9:55 pm on Thursday.
The Aggies are coming off an SEC Championship appearance and are ranked #17 in the latest AP Poll. They are wildly under seeded and probably should have been a 5 seed in this bracket. Penn State has faced tough competition throughout the Big Ten and nobody in the NCAA Tournament is going to be an easy out. At the end of the day with this team it all comes down to if the threes are falling. We will have to wait until Thursday to find out.
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