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Penn State Men’s Basketball: Nittany Lions Fall in Overtime to Wisconsin

You watch enough Penn State men’s basketball and you come to recognize how close it is and also how far it still has to go. There are moments here or there when the program shows flashes of what it wants to become — and in fairness the Nittany Lions have been competitive, watchable and fairly talented for the better part of the last half decade. The notion that Penn State basketball is somehow “just the same as it has always been” simply ignores the fact is has never been more competitive on the national stage and on an annual basis than it has been the past six years or so. Overall things are, both on and off the court, miles better and more competitive than they once were. Penn State was recently a Top 10 team, won an NIT playing some of the best basketball in the country and only missed the NCAA Tournament recently because a generational pandemic canceled it.

But it’s the six points. That’s the difference. It always has been.

If Penn State basketball could dig up six more points, a representation of the slight uptick in quality and consistency it needs to take that next step, then things might be different. Start to do that, and the tide turns. Like its football counterparts across the street, it is not terribly difficult to stay in a big game, but it sure is a hell of a lot harder to find way to win them. Football has figured out that equation to some degree but it also has a much favorable starting point.

In the minutia, as the Nittany Lions lost to Wisconsin 79-74 in overtime on Wednesday evening for their third consecutive defeat, it was a six points kind of game. Seth Lundy’s game-tying three late in regulation was the sort of shot-making that elevates programs. The Nittany Lions’ 2-for-9 shooting from beyond the arc in the first half is the kind of shot-missing that sinks them.

Of course as Penn State – now 14-10 on the year and 5-8 in the Big Ten play – trailed 35-29 at the half it was a reminder that being competitive is not the same thing as being deserving of a win. You can play well and lose, you can play poorly and win. Basketball season is long because it has to account for the fact some nights just aren’t your night and some nights the other guy just plays better. It’s one of the few sports where everyone can do the right thing and then the wrong thing happens.

Take for example Camren Wynter’s missed three with 30 seconds to go in overtime as Penn State trailed by four. Wynter finished the night with 15 points on a 50%+ shooting effort that was his best outing in ages. By all rights Wynter had played his best offensive basketball since coming to Penn State. He was wide open, in rhythm and exactly where he needed to be. This was a moment for him to make good on everything. He, in a sense, deserved to make that shot.

And it didn’t fall.

To be sure, Penn State didn’t lose because of Wynter, it lost because it didn’t play particularly great defense, doesn’t have enough size on the interior – despite outscoring Wisconsin 34-32 in the paint – and is plagued by the crushing reality that being a good shooting team isn’t quite the same as being a great one. Overall the Nittany Lions are as competitive as they’ve ever been since joining the Big Ten and that still means doing a whole bunch of losing because basketball is hard and Penn State is somewhere in the middle of a very very good conference. It also lost because Wisconsin has Chucky Hepburn who scored 19 dead-eye points, each more punishing than the last.

Elsewhere Jalen Pickett finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists before reluctantly fouling out in the overtime period. Lundy added 14 of his own while Funk rounded out the double-digit scoring with 10 points on 2-for-6 shooting from beyond the arc.

You can parse all sorts of things in games like this. The fouls that weren’t called, the fouls that were. The cold shooting, the timely shooting, the mistakes and the turnovers. Penn State faces Maryland this weekend looking to avenge a loss in which it didn’t play great but also didn’t play poorly. That’s the unfortunate reality of basketball, sometimes you just lose.

For Penn State it all feels familiar, something that newish head coach Micah Shrewsberry has yet to experience for himself. A coach from a background of winning, it will be interesting to see how he embracing the light insanity that comes with Penn State’s perpetual dance between winning and coming up short. The unfortunate part for him is that it’s easy to get the game down to just those six points, but like his predecessors before him know all too well, finding those six points every night is a far steeper climb.