UNIVERSITY PARK - The basketball gods have not been kind to Penn State this year. And they saved their most gut-wrenching blow for the final game of the regular season.
Deadlocked in a 60-60 tie with No. 22 Wisconsin with less than four seconds to go at the Jordan Center Sunday afternoon, the Nittany Lions appeared to be headed for overtime and a shot at an upset.
But then Badger guard Traevon Jackson bolted up the floor, took two steps past midcourt and pulled up from the left hash. He launched a prayer over PSU guard Kevin Montminy.
It was answered, zipping through the net as time expired for a 63-60 victory.
"I was just thinking, we've got to get this last stop, man," said Lion guard D.J. Newbill, who finished with 22 points and five assists. "We were trying to make him take a contested shot, which he did. Unfortunately, it went in."
After opening Big Ten play with 14 straight losses, the Nittany Lions were looking to close by winning three of four. Instead, they fell to 10-20 overall and 2-16 in the league after splitting their last four games.
"Our effort was there, the kids played hard," PSU coach Pat Chambers said. "The kids really competed. I felt like we earned the right to win this one. That's why this one hurts."
The Lions fell into an early 8-0 hole but quickly rallied back into it. The game was tight and exciting the rest of the way, with 18 lead changes and six ties. As usual, Newbill and backcourt mate Jermaine Marshall (23 points) did the bulk of the heavy lifting for Penn State. And as usual, UW (21-10, 12-6) got a balanced scoring effort, with Jackson (15 points) one of four Badgers in doubles.
PSU led 50-48 with 6:21 left in the game when Marshall picked up his fourth foul, and Chambers was forced to alternate Marshall with the walk-on Montminy the rest of the way.
"One again, foul trouble killed us," Chambers said.
And yet the Badgers could not capitalize on Marshall's limited action down the stretch. They built a four-point lead twice, the second (60-56) on a pair of Mike Bruesewitz free throws with 33 seconds left.
Newbill drove to the bucket eight seconds later to cut it to 60-58. Then Bruesewitz threw the ball out of bounds against the Lion press. Newbill missed a jumper but teammate Nick Colella gathered in the rebound. The ball worked its way back to Newbill, who made a 15-footer to tie it 60-60 with five seconds to go.
"We kept fighting, we stuck together," Newbill said.
Did they ever keep fighting. Bruesewitz inbounded to Jackson and Colella flew in for the steal. Jackson and Colella both fell to the floor, wrestling for the ball, and a tie-up was called. Alternate possession went to the Badgers with less than four seconds to go.
This time Jackson fielded the inbound pass cleanly. And a few seconds later, the game was over.
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said his team practiced that situation "25 to 30 times" about a week ago, so he was not surprised Jackson was able to generate a shot so quickly. "The ball still has to go in, though," Ryan said. "It's a tough shot."
And it was a tough loss, the latest in what has been a tough season for the Nittany Lions.
"Horseshoes, it's great when you get close," Chambers said. "But basketball, it's a loss. It happens too much around here. Everyone gets excited when we get close. I'm tired of getting close. We need to win."
GAME NOTES: Penn State is the No. 12 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which opens Thursday at the United Center in Chicago. PSU faces No. 5 seed Michigan in a game that tips at about 2:30 p.m. and will be carried by the BTN. ... More than 50 former Lions were honored at halftime Sunday. That included honorary captain Titus Ivory, the 2001 standout who sustained a life-threatening stroke in October but is well on his way to a full recovery. ... Newbill and Marshall combined for 46 points. The rest of the team tallied 14. ... Though the Badgers enjoyed a significant size advantage in this game, the Lions had more rebounds (31 to 28) and points in the paint (30 to 20).