It was a day where 6,188 faithful packed venerable Rec Hall, pouring onto the track. They posed for photos. They cheered like crazy. They enjoyed a spirited game. Someone even started yelling “Be There!” during free throws.
The outstanding atmosphere was just like the old days, before Penn State moved into the more sterile Jordan Center in 1996.
Head coach Pat Chambers said, “It was an event,” and he was right.
But by the time it was over, however, those same fans were reminded of a not-so-great tradition from the Rec Hall days -- the gut-wrenching loss. This one -- 81-79 in overtime -- was as brutally heart-breaking as anything that ever happened against Temple or Indiana.
Penn State blew a 20-point lead with 10 minutes to go. And neither star senior guard Tim Frazier -- who missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer at the end of regulation then the possible game-tying layup at the end of OT -- nor backcourt mate D.J. Newbill did not quite know what to say about it.
“We want to say thank you to everybody who came out, especially the fans with the snow,” Frazier said, alluding to the nasty weather outside. “I'm sorry we came out with an 'L.'”
Added Newbill: “It's disappointing. We missed a great opportunity today. We had the fans here. … We just let it slip away from us.”
To be fair, the collapse was equal parts Penn State (8-4) coming unglued and the Tigers (8-1) finally getting dialed in on both ends of the floor.
Through the first 30 minutes, the Lions were having their way offensively. Newbill was unstoppable, slashing in the lane and hurting Princeton with a shot that was popular back when PSU played all of its home games in Rec Hall -- the mid-range jumper.
The Tigers, meanwhile, could not find their range from the arc. Leading scorer T.J. Bray was having a particularly difficult go of it, and actually finished the game shooting 1 of 10 from the floor.
It all added up to a 51-31 PSU lead when Frazier hit a layup at the 10:23 mark of the second half.
Princeton coach Mitch Henderson later admitted, “With 10 minutes left, I was hoping we would get home on time and get out of here (given the weather).”
Around that time, the Tigers went to a 1-3-1 defense. And Penn State had no clue how to solve it. The usually dependable Frazier and Newbill began kicking the ball around like it was a slick pigskin. The Lions finished with 20 turnovers, including 13 by the starting backcourt.
The defensive success gave Princeton confidence and the triples began falling. The Tigers were 2 of 10 in the first half and finished the game 10 of 32. Even more trouble for PSU was that Princeton scored a whopping 25 points off turnovers, with 18 of them coming after intermission.
“We have to limit our turnovers -- especially me personally -- and finish out games,” Frazier said.
Even with everything going wrong, Penn State seemed to regain its footing when forward Ross Travis drove baseline for a big dunk in traffic. Sitting in the front row behind the basket, Lion football coach Bill O'Brien came out of his seat and pumped his fist. The crowd went bonkers. The lead was 62-50 with 5:00 left.
But the play did not turn out to be a momentum-changer. PSU continued to struggle with the 1-3-1 and Princeton continued to drain treys. The Lions also killed themselves by missing free throws.
Travis missed two of four in the final 34 seconds that likely would have iced it. Then came another turnover. Bray missed the second of two free throws with 16 seconds left and Travis knocked the rebound out of bounds. Spencer Weisz was fouled three seconds later and made both to tie the game at 66-66.
Frazier had an open look at a 3-pointer with three seconds left and missed it. He was later asked if he should have taken it to the bucket, and admitted that might have worked. He would get that chance soon enough.
State fell behind by as many as six (75-69) in OT but never gave up as the crowd stayed in the game. The Lions scratched and clawed and overcame more missed free throws, and trailed 81-79 with the ball under the Princeton bucket and 2.9 seconds left.
Allen Roberts inbounded a long baseball pass to Frazier, who caught it behind Tiger guard Ben Hazel. Frazier went hard to the bucket as the crowd was in a frenzy. Hazel appeared to play clean defense.
Frazier double-clutched and just plain missed the sort of layup he's probably made a hundred times in his career.
“Even if I did get fouled, I still should have made the shot,” he said. “… I just have to make that shot.”
And just like that, the “event” was over. The crowd of 6,188 began to file out into snow, talking about the game that slipped away.
Frazier and Newbill were both marvelous at times, scoring 24 each to lead the Lions. But afterward, their focus was on the things that went wrong.
“We just have to do a better job of communicating and putting teams away when we have them,” Newbill said. “We have to do a better job of closing games.”
Even Chambers admitted that for all of the positives of the day, the one real negative was tough to stomach.
“Honestly, I feel bad for our kids, I feel bad for our players,” Chambers said. “They really wanted to come in here and play well. Maybe that's what happened -- (they were impacted) by the pressure to come in and play well at Rec Hall.”
• Travis was the only other Lion in doubles, with 15 points and 12 rebounds.
• Bray finished with 11 points (he was 9 of 12 from the line) and 13 assists. Forward Will Barrett led the Tigers with 24, making 6 of 11 3-pointers (all of them after halftime). PSU outrebounded Princeton 43-22.
• Penn State's 1991 NCAA Tournament team was honored at the half. Former coach Bruce Parkhill received the loudest round of applause among the returnees in attendance. PSU also had a nice tribute to the late Monroe Brown, who was a standout guard on the '91 team.
• The throwback theme extended to the officiating crew, as longtime Big Ten ref Ed Hightower led the three-man crew. Hightower is retiring at the end of this month after 35 years on the job.
• Penn State has a week off for finals before facing Mount St. Mary's at the Jordan Center Dec. 22. It will be the first game in which Pitt transfer John Johnson will be eligible for the Nittany Lions.