Penn State’s home loss to Michigan State last Saturday was a 40-minute microcosm of the disaster their 2009-2010 season has become.
Once again, Talor Battle single-handedly carried his struggling team.
He scored 30 points and hit a career-high seven three-pointers. He outdueled the Spartans’ Kalin Lucas (who finished with 24 points) in a showcase between two of the best point guards in men’s college basketball.
But yet again, Battle’s superb play didn’t translate into a victory.
The Lions led the No. 10-ranked Spartans by two points midway through the second half.
But that’s when the game turned.
Michigan State immediately responded with a 13-0 run en route to a 65-54 victory over Penn State at the Bryce Jordan Center on Saturday afternoon.
The Nittany Lions went scoreless for six-and-a-half minutes of game time down the stretch. They were outrebounded six to two over that period.
Over that time, the Michigan State bench players were as full of life as their emerald uniforms might indicate. They waved their “rally” towels and jumped up and down with excitement. In fact, they were the only people inside the Bryce Jordan Center making any discernible noise.
All the 14,017 fans in attendance could do was let out one collective groan after another as the Spartans’ lead grew larger and the Lions’ scoreless streak grew longer.
Had Penn State been able to snag an offensive rebound somewhere down the stretch, things might have been different.
Michigan State (20-6, 10-3 in the Big Ten) had entered this game on its first three-game losing streak since February 2007. But with the win, the Spartans regained a half-game lead over Ohio State for first place in the conference.
Penn State (8-16, 0-12), meanwhile, was coming off its bye week. They hadn’t played, and therefore hadn’t lost, since last Saturday’s buzzer-beating heartbreaker against Minnesota. With its loss to the Spartans, Penn State remained winless since Dec. 21, the day of the winter solstice.
Yes, it’s been a very cold and long winter indeed for these Nittany Lions.
For Penn State, this was just another one of those games that seemed to snowball horribly out of control at the very end.
Battle, the valiant hero in defeat, was reduced to playing the thankless role of steadfast optimist during his post-game press conference.
“We feel like we can beat anyone, we just hope. We actually have to stop hoping and start believing that we can win and close a game out.”
Nittany Lion fans have a lot of things to hope for these days—but praying Talor Battle becomes an elite player isn’t one of them.
Battle now leads all Big Ten players in points scored. He’s the only Nittany Lion averaging double figures in points per game. He’s the only player in the entire BCS to lead his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, and steals.
The fact that the 6’0’’ Battle leads his team in rebounding is a testament to his greatness, but it also highlights the Nittany Lions’ inability to rebound. Their lack of a low-post presence has hindered them just as much as their lack of a viable secondary scoring option.
Penn State was outrebounded 38-24 by Michigan State on Saturday. The Spartans had 12 offensive boards; the Lions had only four. Michigan State’s bench outscored Penn State’s 13-1. The rebounding statistics were 14-1 in favor of the Spartans. Battle’s five rebounds were tied for second most on his squad.
Rebounding has been Penn State’s most glaring problem during the season—but it never used to be.
In Battle’s rookie season (2007-2008), the Lions got 8.4 rebounds per night from Geary Claxton and 6.1 from Jamelle Cornley. Both players have since graduated.
Last season, Cornley averaged 6.4 boards per game, while current junior Andrew Jones supplied 5.8. The Lions outrebounded their opponent in all five of their NIT victories last spring.
Yet this year, Battle is currently the only Nittany Lion averaging more than five rebounds per game (at 5.3).
So why the drop-off?
Jones’ inconsistency is one underlying reason. His rebounds per game have fallen from 5.8 last year to 4.9 this year.
Certainly, Penn State needs to find a player who can command the same low-post presence as Claxton and Cornley did in previous seasons.
Then just think of how hard it’ll be for opposing defenses to contain Battle.
The Spartans and Lions will meet again on Thursday, Mar. 4 in East Lansing, Mich. The teams have split the season series each of the past two seasons, but the Nittany Lions will need a miracle, plus some heavy-duty rebounding for once, in order to have a shot at pulling off an upset in the rematch.