Even with its postseason hopes next to nonexistent, nobody can accuse Penn State of playing out the string. That much was obvious after Saturday night's wrenching, controversial 67-66 loss to Northwestern at the Jordan Center.
The rage was evident in the demeanor of the Nittany Lions, and nobody was more ticked than first-year coach Pat Chambers.
Irate over a late whistle that sent Wildcat star John Shurna to the line to hit the game-winning free throws with 2.6 seconds left, Chambers bolted onto the court when the final buzzer sounded and laid into the officials as they jogged toward their locker room.
His jacket off and shirt soaked with perspiration, Chambers was restrained by video coordinator Adam Fisher.
There was a long delay before Chambers entered the BJC Media Room after the game, by which time he was composed and back in his suit jacket, complete with a neat handkerchief in the lapel pocket. Yet even while trying to be contrite about his outburst, he was clearly still rankled by the game's final seconds.
I let my emotions get the best of me, I shouldn't do that, Chambers said. That's not what Penn State's all about, that's not what I'm all about. There's plenty of other opportunities during the game where we could have done a better job.
It happens. Emotions get the best of you. You want so much for these kids. They work so hard. You'd rather see it in the kids' hands.
Penn State led 66-65 when center Jon Graham was fouled while shooting with 14.1 seconds left. The redshirt freshman had iced a win over Iowa with two free throws at the very same basket Feb. 16, but this time the 43-percent foul shooter bricked both attempts.
NU rebounded and did not call timeout. The Wildcats worked the ball to the 6-9 Shurna, who was being hounded by quick guard Tim Frazier. The Big Ten's leading scorer attempted a short turnaround jumper but Graham drifted out and blocked it. A replay seemed to show Graham getting all ball.
And then there was an odd pause while players from both teams fought for the ball, with PSU's Jermaine Marshall prevailing. Then the whistle from in front of the NU bench, and all eyes in the house were on referee Wally Rutecki.
Rutecki was standing behind Shurna -- a bad angle from which to make such a call.
It was a late whistle, Chambers said. I thought we were gonna go down and shoot one and one.
I thought we had it, Frazier added.
The crowd moaned when Rutecki signaled the foul on Graham. There were only 2.6 seconds left.
Graham looked incredulous. Northwestern players celebrated. Chambers erupted on the sideline.
Shurna calmly made the first. Then Penn State called timeout. Then Shurna made the second, giving Northwestern the 67-66 lead.
Penn State had a long inbound pass to Frazier, who actually got a good look from about 35 feet. But the shot was short and the game was over.
PSU fell to 12-17 and 4-12 in the Big Ten. The Wildcats, fighting to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, improved to 17-11 and 7-9.
The contrast in style between the two teams was stunning and actually made for some fun basketball.
PSU trailed by as many as nine (43-34) early in the second half before finally solving the Wildcats' zone defense. Northwestern was pushing out on the perimeter, and the Lions began to work the ball into the paint, resulting in a series of dunks.
Frazier had an and-one slam for the highlight reel when be darted through a seam and threw down over guard Dave Sobolewski.
State would eventually use a 13-3 run to take a 52-49 lead and neither team could stretch the advantage to more than four the rest of the way.
The Lions finished with 40 points in the paint, with rookie Ross Travis and Graham both scoring 10 points to complement Frazier's 23.
Northwestern, meanwhile, did most of its damage from the arc, making 15 of 29 triples. The Wildcats are the Big Ten leaders in 3-pointers made, so the approach was hardly a surprise.
We knew coming in they were going to shoot 30 threes, Chambers said.
Penn State tightened its perimeter defense when it mattered, though, holding NU scoreless from the arc in the final five minutes. It allowed the Lions to turn a 61-57 deficit into the 66-65 lead, a 9-4 run that included a wild conventional 3-point play by Frazier and a baseline slam by Travis.
Frazier gets three the hard way.
There was another key to this game in the final minutes, though. After calling a total of 14 fouls (seven on each team) in the first 18:53 of the second half, the refs got whistle happy. Moonlighting NFL official Gene Steratore led a crew than included two men rarely used by the Big Ten -- Rutecki and Ron Tyburski. The Web site StatSheet.com indicated Saturday night's content was the first Big Ten game Rutecki had worked this season and only his sixth since 1999.
The late calls did not seem to benefit either team more than the other. But they did impact the otherwise even flow of the game.
Travis was called for an offensive foul with 1:06 remaining. Next came what appeared to be the obligatory makeup call at the other end, when NU's Reggie Hearn was slapped with the same violation.
Then came the final two fouls, both of which resulted in free throws.
They missed their foul shots and we made ours, Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said.
As always -- even in the middle of a desperate run to make the NCAA Tournament -- Carmody was a cool customer during and after the game.
Asked about the foul call on Graham, he dryly said, I don't know. (Shurna) took a shot. They called a foul.
I'll have to watch the tape to see if it was a block or whatever.
But cool is not Chambers' style. Even in a season where there will be no postseason, this one hurt. And they all cared.
As the buzzer sounded, Graham began to drop to his knees. And when a teammate tried to help him up, he angrily slapped away the hand before standing up on his own. Travis walked around the floor with his hands balled up in fists, like he wanted to slug someone.
Frazier's fists were clenched, too, hanging down at the end of his long, skinny arms.
And Chambers ran after the refs, full of fury.
He admitted to taking a self-imposed cooling off period after the game.
I was in my film room just chilling out looking at the box score, trying to relax, he said. It's just sad. I'm happy for Northwestern. They played well. They shot the ball. They needed that win. But by the same token, our kids work hard, too.
Our kids work hard, too, he repeated.
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