In the gutsy effort, junior guard Jermaine Marshall scored 25 points, including six three-pointers. The final: Penn State 84, Michigan 78. For perhaps the first time all season, Nittany Lions fans left celebrating. The diehards in attendance stormed the court.
This long season came as no surprise. Their best player, Tim Frazier, ruptured his left Achilles tendon in an early season matchup against Akron. Frazier averaged 18.8 points and 6.2 assists last season. He led the nation by accounting for 58 percent of the team's offense.
Clearly, the loss of their senior was too much to overcome. The situation resembled that of Drew Crawford. Northwestern saw its tournament hopes disappear when Crawford underwent season-ending shoulder surgery.
On the bright side, Frazier and Crawford will likely be granted medical redshirts – which would allow them to return next season. Both teams face higher expectations next season. For this matchup, each is simply trying to scratch out a rare conference victory.
There's no doubt that both teams are motivated. NU hopes to end its miserable six-game losing streak. The Cats have yet to win without Jared Swopshire. They will send off seniors Alex Marcotullio and Reggie Hearn, both of whom were respected by fans. Even Swopshire – the Louisville transfer and graduate student – will be a part of Senior Night festivities. The game will be low on drama, but high on emotion.
Though the results are lacking, second-year coach Patrick Chambers kept his team focused. They struggled to adjust without their best player. On Dec. 5, the Nittany Lions lost to La Salle by 25. They dropped their first three conference games by an average of 16 points, including the 70-54 loss to NU on Jan. 10.
The Lions are just 1-15 in conference play, but several players have improved in recent contests. Junior forward Sasa Borovnjak, who struggled with foul trouble in the early season, picked up his offensive game. Borovnjak scored 14 points in the 74-72 loss to Iowa on Feb. 14. In each of the next two games – close losses against Michigan and Illinois – he scored 17 points.
But it took the excellent performance from Marshall to help Penn State earn its first conference win. Marshall and D.J. Newbill form the promising backcourt. They combine to score 31.1 points per game, which accounts for more than half of the team's scoring.
Newbill acts as the fearless slasher. The sophomore can't shoot. He makes less than one quarter of his three-point attempts. Marshall and Nick Colella are the only serious perimeter threats, with each hovering around 35 percent from behind the line. Penn State shoots a terrible 29 percent from three overall.
One of the Nittany Lions' strengths is rebounding. They outrebound their opponents. Sophomore forward Ross Travis, at just 6-6, leads the team with 7.1 per game and ranks sixth in the conference in defensive rebounding. Thankfully for NU, the Lions are tenth in the conference with a 28.8% offensive rebounding rate.
The pieces NU has left should beat Penn State on Senior Night. They're just facing a different Nittany Lions team than one month ago. It could even be entertaining.