Penn State beat Iowa 69-64 at the Jordan Center Thursday night, turning back a second-half Hawkeye rally to win consecutive games for the first time in Big Ten play this year.
But every bit as important as the victory -- if not more so in a season where the rebuilding Nittany Lions are sure to finish in the lower echelon of the league standings -- was the fact that the proverbial light when on for redshirt freshman center Jon Graham.
Graham had his best outing yet, making both ends of a clutch one-and-one to ice the game in the final half minute. He logged career highs in points (10) and minutes played (27), and added six rebounds and two blocks.
Confidence is a powerful thing, first-year coach Pat Chambers said. For that kid, it is huge.
If this program is going to go anywhere in the next few years, Chambers must find some capable big men to complement star guard Tim Frazier and a generally solid backcourt. Against the Hawkeyes, the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Graham showed why he could be a key cog if he continues to improve.
He set a tone early with a couple of stick-back buckets as the Nittany Lions raced out to a double-figure lead in the first half.
Then, after the Hawkeyes stormed back in the second half, Graham found himself on the floor with PSU clinging to a 66-63 lead. The Lions had the ball, and with the game clock at 25 seconds and shot clock below 15, Chambers called timeout.
In his huddle, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery decided to play the percentages. If anyone other than Graham touched the ball for Penn State, the Hawkeyes would try to defend and get the back with 10 or so seconds left.
But if Graham caught the ball, the Iowa players would foul. Seeing he had made 8 of 23 free throws (34.8 percent) going into the game, it made sense.
Guard Nick Colella inbounded the ball in front of the Penn State bench. Graham was wide open -- because Iowa wanted him to be. Colella threw him the ball and Graham was immediately fouled.
We fouled him on purpose, McCaffery said. We let him catch it and fouled him.
Graham toed the line, spun the ball, dribbled and drew all net on the front end. He did the same thing on the second one. With 24 seconds remaining, Penn State led 68-63.
Going to the line, I had a clear head, Graham said. I was not thinking about a thing.
I just basically said, forget about the percentages, forget about the past. I was just concentrating on this game.
I'm so proud of him, to show the confidence that he had to knock those down, Chambers added.
Even McCaffery was impressed.
Give the kid credit, he said. He stepped up there and drilled them.
Graham insists that in practice, he has not had trouble making free throws. It was just a matter of seeing that carry over to games. It is, he said, all about confidence.
There was a confident twinkle in his eye when he was told McCaffery had said he was the only Lion on the floor that Hawkeyes would have fouled in that situation.
A big surprise for them, right? Graham answered with a smile.
And perhaps the start of something big in the paint for Penn State.
I think you're going to see a much better, much more confident Jon Graham, Chambers said. He's a freshman; this is going to build his confidence and self esteem.
Penn State improved to 12-15 overall and 4-10 in the Big Ten, and climbed out of last place in the conference. Iowa is 13-13 and 5-8.
Despite being slowed by foul trouble in the first half, PSU guard Tim Frazier finished with 18 points and four assists.
As a team, Penn State shot 78.6 percent from the free-throw line. In a game where the teams posted near identical numbers from the field and the 3-point line, it proved to be the difference.
Senior guard Matt Gatens brought Iowa back from a 14-point halftime deficit. He had two points at the break but finished with 21 thanks to a 5-of-7 effort from the arc in the final 20 minutes.