For the Penn State men's basketball team, little has been simple or easy about its 2013-14 season.
Sunday afternoon at the Bryce Jordan Center was no different, but in a turnaround of previous misfortunes, late-game free throw shooting lifted the Nittany Lions to their third-straight Big Ten win in a 79-68 contest against Purdue.
Knocking down 11 of 12 free throws to ice the game, Penn State head coach Pat Chambers was asked whether or not his team (12-10 overall; 3-6 Big Ten) had proven that it'd learned how to win.
"I'm not going to go that far," Chambers said, rubbing his forehead. "You saw some of the inbounds situations… but we're getting the confidence to go to the line and we want to be there. Guys wanted to be there and they made their shots, which is great.
"We need to feel that. We needed to do that… They did a real good job of finishing the game."
This, of course, coming just two weeks after an epic late-game loss against the same opponent in West Lafayette, Ind., in which the Nittany Lions failed to secure a win after leading by 3 points with just 10 seconds left to play. At the time, the loss extended Penn State's streak to six games, a moment Chambers reflected upon following Sunday afternoon's win - the first three-game Big Ten winning streak for the program dating back to the 2008-09 season.
"That Purdue game was devastating, I gotta tell you. I give these kids a lot of credit for staying the course, because it could have gotten really ugly. It could have been a perfect storm. They just kept plugging away," he said. "We stayed positive and we looked at our mistakes and looked at what we needed to do a better job in."
Those things, according to Chambers and his two veteran leaders, guards Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill, included offensive rebounds surrendered and, more acutely, second-chance points.
Newbill, who led the Nittany Lions in scoring with a game-high 19 points, including 8 of 10 shooting from the free throw line, said he and his teammates focused intently on reversing what they'd identified as the culprit for their last loss.
"It was a big emphasis on our game plan. They had 17 offensive rebounds on us last game. The game was decided by two points, they beat us by one. That was the deciding factor," he said. "So, we just made it a big emphasis in our game plan to make sure we don't give up those offensive rebounds. That's a lot of their game. They have great offensive rebounders. They have big, athletic guys, so I think we just paid attention more, got bodies on guys and went in and attacked the ball."
In the first half, anyway, that's exactly what the Nittany Lions were able to do. Trailing the Boilermakers (13-8, 3-5) by as many as 7 points within the game's opening minutes, they responded with a 21-4 run midway through the first half to take a 34-29 lead into the halftime locker room.
All the while, Purdue was held without an offensive rebound in the first half and, by extension, had no second-chance points.
Though the second half opened similarly cold for Penn State, missing its first four shots from the floor, Purdue was unable to capitalize. Trading buckets and free throws in what amounted to a herky-jerk officiating day, the Nittany Lions took a 10 point lead with under 12 minutes to play, only to see it evaporate to two points less than 2 minutes later.
Regaining their footing, despite ultimately giving up another 11 offensive rebounds in the second half, the Nittany Lions responded to pull away in a final two minutes that seemed to go on ad nauseum. As has been the case throughout the season, putting the game away was not without its interesting moments for the Nittany Lions, including some particular struggles inbounding the ball that led to two called timeouts and even a turnover.
Said Chambers, "I think Purdue made us do some of the things we did. They took us away from calming down and just getting to our spots in our pressure offense and knowing what to do."
Emerging with the win, though, Chambers acknowledged a spirit and attitude about his team that has helped propel the Nittany Lions from the absolute cellar of the Big Ten standings to tie 9th, with a road date against Michigan State (19-3, 8-1) Wednesday at 9 p.m.
"We were 0-6 a couple of weeks ago. What these kids have done to turn this around is just kept working, kept digging, kept getting better, and they really just bought in to what we're doing and each other. That's what it looks like. They're really playing for each other," he said. "We've got a good bunch, good heads, we're in uncharted waters right now because we haven't won three games in a long time, so it's going to be interesting to see how they react and how we come back to work tomorrow."