In one of the more disjointed and lopsided games of the Nittany Lions' season, Penn State lost to Nebraska Thursday night at Pinnacle Bank Arena, 80-67, in front of a packed house of 15,797 fans.
The contest between the two middling Big Ten teams started innocently enough, the Cornhuskers (15-10 overall, 7-6 Big Ten) and Nittany Lions (13-14, 4-10) trading baskets to a 7-7 tie at the first media timeout.
From there, the game resembled a perversion of a half-time fan free throw shooting contest mixed with a low-level mixed martial arts exhibition. In a game that saw the Cornhuskers lead by as many as 27 points in the second half and had no overtime, a barrage of foul calls produced a game lasting more than 2 hours, 20 minutes.
In total, the two teams would combine to be whistled for 51 personal fouls, 27 called on the Nittany Lions and 24 for the Cornhuskers, respectively. Having witnessed his opponent take 48 free throws - the most ever against Penn State against Big Ten competition - Nittany Lions' head coach Patrick Chambers was seemingly at a loss for words following the game.
"Look, I have great respect for the officials… but 48 free throws," he said. "Wow…
"But, I give Nebraska a lot of credit. They're a hot team right now. We knew they were a hot team, we had to play at a high level and we didn't get it done. Can't blame everything on the officials."
Certainly, the Nittany Lions had struggles of their own. Converting on just 8 of 31 shots in the first half (25.8 percent), Penn State found itself unable to earn trips to the free throw line when driving to the lane, taking just 23 free throws for the game and only 10 in the first half, and unable to sink shots when resorting to jumpers.
Said Chambers, "We gotta hit some shots, some outside shots, to relieve the pressure of these guys getting in the paint. But you have to adjust and in timeouts, we were trying to help them adjust. You gotta be in a better stance, you gotta move your feet, you gotta do the little things, habits I thought we've created all year long.
"But (Nebraska) did a good job, exposed our weaknesses and they converted. I mean, it's hard to win games when you make 37 free throws."
In the first half alone, the Cornhuskers scored more than half of their points at the free throw line, knocking down 21 of 23 free throw attempts while taking a 39-27 lead to the locker room.
Though a Ross Travis layup cut the deficit to 10 to open the second half, a string of two layups and a Terran Petteway in the next 1:10 gave the Cornhuskers a commanding 17-point lead. Tussling back and forth for a few series, the game took another turn as Brandon Taylor was called for his third foul, prompting a Chambers technical out of obvious frustration.
Shortly after he Cornhuskers extended their lead to 54-33 off the technical free throws, the Nittany Lions were tagged with another technical and an ejection for Taylor's second of the game. By the time Travis was whistled for a technical just under 5 minutes later, the NIttany Lions had picked up their fourth of the game and trailed 64-43.
Attempting to focus on other contributing factors for the loss, Chambers identified Nebraska's increased shooting percentage (19 of 43, 44.2 percent) as a big difference between the two teams' first meeting in State College a month ago.
"They're a different team from the first time we played them. They're longer, they clog up the paint, but let's be honest, they're making shots," Chambers said. "Your defense is sometimes dictated by your offense. When Petteway is drilling threes and Pitchford is drilling threes - when we played them they were only making four threes per game. When you look at their last five or six games, they're drilling shots. And if they're not, Shields is driving the ball and he gets himself to the foul line."