The Weight Of The Stars And Penn State's 81-79 Overtime Loss To Princeton
As Penn State celebrated its NIT title in 2009, forward Jamelle Cornley walked up to his sophomore counterpart Talor Battle, and hugged him.
It was Cornley's final game as a Nittany Lion -- an injured shoulder, a career of highs and lows, Cornley had seen it all and battled through it.
He was named tournament MVP and helped win the program's first national tournament title. Over 20 buses jammed with fans and students made the trip to the NIT Championship game at Madison Square Garden against Baylor. For the emotional leader and face of the program it was in many ways Cornley's crowning achievement.
"I got them here," Cornely told Battle as they embraced. "Now it's your job to make sure they stay."
And so is the challenge of Penn State basketball's ever present "star" -- the one player that performs head and shoulders above the rest of his team. He's the player who seems to will the team to victory and to make people care.
Battle struggled in the year following Cornley's departure. But he was key in his final season in Happy Valley, helping guide a talented Nittany Lion squad to the NCAA tournament in 2011.
Tim Frazier was on that 2011 team. A wiry sophomore out of Houston, Texas that would later become the heir to Battle's throne.
The Nittany Lions fell 66-64 in the first-round despite Frazier scoring 15 points and dishing out 7 assists. In perhaps a cruel twist of irony, Temple guard Juan Fernandez sank a last second shot to give the Owls the lead the same way Battle had made a career of beating teams in the final seconds. The only player who hadn't fallen prey to his last second antics was Battle himself.
Head coach Ed DeChellis would depart the program following that season, leaving with his senior heavy -and now graduating-- squad. Behind him Frazier stood with a first year head coach Patrick Chambers and the weight of the world on his shoulders. He was now the one required to perform at a high level every night.
Under the direction of Chambers, Frazier would do his best to keep the success going. His junior year Frazier would average 16 points a game and was instrumental in all of Penn State's wins. His would-be senior season was cut short by an achilles injury that ended his year.
With Frazier's return in 2013 the expectations have only risen. In large part he has met, if not exceeded them. 17.9 points per game, 7.7 assists and nearly 2 steals every night he plays. You would be hard pressed to find a better guard playing college basketball right now than him
So with Saturday's game tied at 66 with 13 seconds to play, Frazier made his way down the court with the ball, expectations in front of him and a career of experience behind him. With three seconds left, Frazier pulled up with two defenders near him and flicked the ball toward the basket. His long three would send the crowd into a frenzy.
But the shot misses and the rebound pin balled around harmlessly as the final seconds ticked away.
On some level, even in the subconscious, there is a desire to make that game winning shot from deep. It's what years of driveway basketball and NBA highlight films have taught us.
On another level, there is an expectation that Frazier will hit the shot. Stars are always expected to. But Penn State basketball stars are perceived as saviors for a program forever battling to become more relevant than it has ever been.
Against Princeton or against Ohio State, each win, and each shot is crucial. Cornely willed with his emotions, Battle with his buzzer-beating heaves. So there was a chance, no matter how brilliant Frazier's career has already been, to create another one of those moments. Frazier is too smart and too good of a player to have his legacy on his mind in a crucial moment of the game. But late-game heroics are never lost on any player. The best ones want to take that shot, and Frazier did too.
"I think you're probably right. Thinking about it you're right," Frazier said of the shot following the game. "I think I could have taken the ball to the hole. You're right."
But a miss in a tie game at the end of regulation is forgotten for now. Overtime is still to be had.
Four minutes and 57 seconds later, down a basket, Frazier catches a full court pass from Brandon Taylor, spins to his left and banks the ball off the glass.
It hits the rim.
And is misses.
And so Frazier is left crouching on the ground with his head in his hands. A second overtime and defeat only moments apart. A shot missed that is made 9 times out of 10.
Chambers threw his towel on the ground as the buzzer sounded. Not out of anger at Frazier but a collection of emotions ranging from disappointment to sadness to frustration and agony. His marquee event over a year in the making comes up just short of perfection. A packed house, a good 7-1 Princeton team in town, and a chance to build momentum into the final non conference game of the year.
"It's hard," Chambers said after the game. "We played a great opponent, that's a good team. I am just disappointed in the way that we finished. As a coach you try to do everything you can. You call timeouts, you motivate, you write up things, you hope that we can execute.
"Honestly, I feel bad for the kids, our players. They really wanted to come in here and perform well and maybe that's what happened. So much pressure put on these kids to excel and play well in Rec Hall that they were a little tight at the end."
Penn State held a 20 point lead in the second half. Even a 58-40 lead with 7:47 to play a 12-point lead with 3:20 to play. But Princeton caught fire, hitting five three-point shots in the final six minutes of the game, three in just under two minutes of game time. By the time the game hit overtime, momentum sat firmly on Princeton's bench.
The Nittany Lions missed six free throws all game, five of those misses coming in the final 34 seconds of regulation and overtime. Froward Ross Travis saved a rebound from his own teammate and tossed it to a Princeton player with 15 seconds to play, leading to what were the game tying free throws. Penn State turned the ball over 20 times despite entering the game ranked fourth best in the nation at not turning the ball over.
All of those things, coupled with the fact the Tigers finally made their shots at the most crucial juncture of the game made Saturday's loss far more a team effort than two missed shots by Tim Frazier.
But Frazier doesn't care.
He will carry this one with him for a long time. He entered the media room following the game as upset as he has been during any of his losses while at Penn State. He took the blame, avoided the chance to say he was fouled on the final play (an argument could be made that he was) and shouldered the load like he has for years.
"Even if I did get fouled it was an either-way call. I still should have made the shot." Frazier said quietly. "We have to do better, especially myself as a fifth-year senior. You know we have to come together and I have to do a better job of bringing everyone together and we have to limit our turnovers, especially me to limit my turnovers personally and finish out games."
Fair or not, that will always be the life of Penn State basketball's biggest star. For Frazier, he has a talented cast around him and his heroics have come more from a balanced team attack than individual play. But that won't matter to Frazier. He will always expect more from himself.
He's only thinking about his two chances to change the game and his two failures to do so. With eight days between now and the Nittany Lions' next game he'll have plenty of time to stew.
And that doesn't bode well for Mount Saint Mary's.