It almost freaking happened. Penn State almost blew a 20-point lead to Rutgers on Wednesday, but in the end, a dominant first half — after which the Lions led 37-19 — was enough to propel this team to victory. Penn State did a great job controlling the glass and forcing Rutgers turnovers during the first half. With the way the Knights were providing fast-break opportunities and missing bad shots, it seemed like the rest of the game would be a breeze. You know how it is with Penn State, though. The Lions were bullied by Rutgers in offensive rebounding in the second half, the turnovers dried up, and the Knights finally started hitting some shots.
If it wasn’t for a few clutch buckets by Lamar Stevens and Josh Reaves, along with a defensive stand in the final seconds in which Rutgers’ freshman center Myles Johnson appeared to pass up a game-winning layup opportunity, the result might have been different. But Penn State did just enough to win and even the season series with Rutgers. That sets up an opportunity for the Lions to snag a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament with a win against Illinois at home and a Rutgers loss to Indiana.
I know, I didn’t think it was possible either, but the tiebreaker scenarios will favor Penn State if it finishes at 7-13 alongside Rutgers and Illinois. If that happens, Penn State’s sweep of the Illini and 1-1 record against the Knights will give it a 3-1 record among tied teams and a ticket to 10th place in the Big Ten. That’s good enough to get a day off when the league tournament tips off on Wednesday night. Not bad for a team that lost its first 10 Big Ten games this season.
Since dropping a home game to Penn State on February 23, Illinois has a win over Northwestern, but it’s also been blown out by Purdue and Indiana. Even better, the Illini have been dreadful on the road this season, going 2-7 in Big Ten play, and one of those wins was a Maryland “home” game at Madison Square Garden.
Defense has been an issue for Illinois lately, with both Purdue and Indiana each shooting 55 percent from the field. When Penn State last visited Champaign, Lamar Stevens had himself a day, scoring 25 points on just 12 shots, and the Lions won 83-76 despite turning the ball over 17 times. With the way Penn State has been playing lately, failing to sweep Illinois today would come as a pretty big disappointment.