INDIANAPOLIS - Following Friday night's odd 36-33 win against Wisconsin in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament, players on Penn State's men's basketball team insisted they didn't believe the win had necessarily boosted them into the NCAA Tournament.
Having been through the NCAA Tournament selection committee song and dance before, they wanted to leave nothing to chance.
This afternoon at Conseco Fieldhouse, the Nittany Lions took another step toward assuring nothing would need to go their way, virtually assuring a reservation to the Big Dance with a 61-48 win against Michigan State in the conference tournament semifinals. With the win, the Nittany Lions (19-13 overall, 12-9 Big Ten) improved to 7-2 since Feb. 13, and will face likely No. 1-overall seed Ohio State on Sunday afternoon in the final (3:30 p.m., CBS).
For Penn State head coach Ed DeChellis, fresh off being left at the alter two years ago in leiu of an NIT bid, emphatically stated that his team belongs.
"Yes. I mean, our strength of schedule was five today. Our RPI was 42. I mean, what else do you want us to do?" he asked. "We just beat Indiana, we beat Wisconsin - a top 15 team, we just beat Michigan State.
"We've done the things that we needed to do. We're going to play hard tomorrow and see what happens, but whatever happens, we need to be in the tournament.
"I don't know what else we're supposed to do. We're going to try to win tomorrow, I understand that, but whatever happens, I think we have to be in the Tournament. "
After two games of less-than-stellar offensive performances, the Nittany Lions' shooting finally caught up with their superb defensive efforts.
Penn State senior guard Talor Battle finally found his stroke, lighting up the Spartans for a team-high 25 points, while backcourt teammate Tim Frazier played the best game of his career, scoring 22 points on 9 of 13 shooting from the field while absolutely smothering Spartans' guard Kalin Lucas on the defensive end of the floor.
Held to just 21 points in the first two games of the tournament on a combined 6 of 30 shooting, Battle opened with 8 first half points before letting loose in the second half.
Fighting to a 26-26 halftime score, the Lions opened the second half with purpose. In a span of just 2 minutes 35 seconds, Battle knocked down four 3-pointers, building a 9 point Penn State lead while sending the Spartans to their heels.
By the time his fourth of the half and sixth of the game connected, he gave a glance to Penn State's modest cheering section, and simply wore a smile back down the court. He couldn't miss.
"They were tough today too. Big and strong, but I was just in a zone where it didn't matter," Battle said. "I hate to sound cocky and it's the first thing I keep saying, but when I get in the zone like that, I don't see anyone in front of me. I just see me and the rim, and I'm just really concentrating on knocking down shots."
When the Spartans (19-14, 11-10) finally brought Battle out of the clouds, Frazier took over, pushing the pace and helping the Lions to score 10 points in transition.
Averaging just 5.5 points per game this season, Frazier has steadily improved his scoring, but not to the point of dropping 22 points in the team's biggest game of the season.
"I couldn't explain it," Frazier said. "I just came out and played hard. I got easy layups in transition. I made buckets, and I made a couple jumpshots, so it just all kind of flowed and came together and at the end of the night, I had 22."
All of this was, of course, after waking up in a 10 point hole in the game's first five minutes.
While the Spartans started by hitting 5 of 6 shots, the Lions struggled to find any success offensively, needing a Frazier tip-in and pull-up jumper to trail only 14-4.
Behind Frazier's 11 first half points, however, the Lions clawed their way back into it. With David Jackson relegated to the bench with two fouls, Jermaine Marshall stepped up to provide a bucket, two blocks and three critical rebounds as the Lions were able to gradually cut the deficit and take a tie score into halftime.
Meanwhile, defensively, the Lions put together yet another remarkable effort.
Following the Spartans' early offensive success, they hit just 12 of 47 shots (25.5 percent) from the floor, and became the third opponent of the tournament to be held under 60 points. In fact, in three games, the Lions have allowed opponents an average of just 45.3 points per game, and a combined shooting percentage of just 36.2 percent.
Now, they'll take their shot at arguably the best team in the country in the Buckeyes (31-2, 18-2), who have the highest scoring offense in the league (77.9 points per game).
Acknowledging the importance of the win, Battle stressed that the Lions' work is not finished.
"It feels good man. Knowing we're in the championship is a great feeling. But we can't be satisfied from what we did today," Battle said. "We want to win the championship and do something really special, so we're going to prepare, kick our legs up and really rest up for tomorrow."