Penn State fell 92-82 to No. 4 Ohio State on Thursday night in a game that was far closer than the final score while also being a good illustration of the differences between teams that are very good and teams that can hang around with them.
The Buckeyes looked their ranking, shooting 57% from the field, making shot after shot, contested look after contested look. Sure, Penn State sometimes made it easy, but if the Nittany Lions could just impose their will on a Top 5 team then they would probably be a Top 5 team. So to what extent we can fault the Nittany Lions for being who they are – both good and bad – is a debate for another time.
Nevertheless it was just a four-point game at halftime, and as Penn State opened the second half on a a 14-4 run the Nittany Lions saw that deficit turn into an eight-point lead.
But like clockwork the bottom fell out of Penn State’s offense. A mixture of hero ball and the inevitably that Ohio State wasn’t going to roll and die turned that eight-point margin into a four-point deficit once again. All the while the Buckeyes made shot after shot as Penn State went cold, missing 11 of its next 12 shots, staying close by free throws and defense alone.
When it was all said and done it was still just a four-point game inside of five minutes to go, but timely Ohio State makes and a few miscues down the stretch saw Penn State’s feisty upset attempt turn into a free throw ritual for the game’s final minute.
By night’s end Penn State had shot 45% from the field, making 12-of-28 shots from beyond the arc while falling short on the glass by just three rebounds. Myreon Jones would lead the way with 18 points, backed up by nearly everyone else with five other Nittany Lions scoring at least nine points.
Across the floor Ohio State was less balanced, but 23 points by EJ Liddell and 21 by Duane Washington Jr was more than enough to do the job, especially as Buckeye shooters seemed indifferent to hands in the face or double-teams down in the paint.
“That’s a really good basketball team,” Penn State interim head coach Jim Ferry said afterwards.
“I’ve gotta give our guys credit, we played really hard, we played really fast, we were the aggressor. […] A bounce here or there, we could have beat that team tonight.”
Penn State’s success over the past few years has rendered moral victories a thing of the past, but for a program that has found itself in big games only to forget to show up to the moment, they would be hard pressed to look at Thursday night’s performance having felt they had entirely blown their chance at the upset.
They showed up, they just lost.
In the big picture, it would seem that Thursday’s loss was yet another nail in the coffin of an already longshot NCAA Tournament resume. The Nittany Lions have more games and more chances to pick up quality wins – and if 2020 has taught us anything it is that anything is possible. That said, the writing appears on the wall, both for the season and the final stanza as it pertains to the remnants of the Pat Chambers era.
There are two moments that stick out though. The first coming at halftime as senior Jamari Wheeler, knee wrapped in ice told his teammates a simple message.
And Wheeler did, a bit hobbled but no less intense. A heart-and-soul player for a Penn State team that finds itself facing an uncertain future both in the short and longterm. Wheeler has not hidden his frustration with Penn State administrators following the departure of his former head coach, nor has he backed down from whoever might line up against him on any given night. Few players have been punched in the mouth so many times only to get up again as Wheeler has, forever ready for the fight.
The second moment came after the game, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann chasing down Harrar from across the court, patting him on the chest as the two spoke. The message was clear – one that Harrar confirmed later – Holtmann wanted to tell him how much he respected Harrar. In many ways Harrar is the best of what college basketball and college athletics can be. He is not the most athletic, he isn’t the best basketball player either, but he’ll damn sure show up every night and fight.
In the process Harrar has turned into a formidable foe. He knows what he is and what he isn’t. He also knows that he isn’t scared. In turn, he has earned the respect of all who play against him. You might beat John Harrar, but you won’t forget him.
“I’ll tell you a story,” Harrar said after the game. “Three hours before the game I always work out. And I was working out with my [Grad assistant] Bo Wagner, and I shared a tear with him because I love this place. I love the Bryce Jordan Center. I love this university. That’s what I play for. I play for the people in the locker room, the staff. I love this place. I love everything that comes with it. I loved my four years here. that’s why I play this game, all the love I have for my teammates and this place. I want to make Penn State go as far as it can. If I can do that with all my love I give them, then that’s a plus.”
Penn State basketball isn’t perfect. At its best it is cyclical, putting up an NCAA Tournament hopeful team ever so often. It is perpetually required to try and build a better program while facing historically great ones with the expectation from onlookers that Penn State’s long football history entitles it to equally good basketball. In reality the Nittany Lions will always be – to some extent – a line item that provides revenue and the occasional opportunity for a heartfelt season. There is no Coach K lurking around the corner, there is no Terry Pegula itching to build a new basketball facility. These are pipe-dreams that will only ever come true as the result of a fundamental change in the laws of physics that govern Penn State athletics.
That doesn’t mean the things can’t be better or that fans can’t expect something more than what they have today. It doesn’t mean that the decades long cycle of rise and fall has to be the norm, but it means that it will likely let people down from time to time, reminding fans that the program is what it is.
In all of this debate, the Jamari Wheelers and John Harrars of the world are lost. They’re drowned out in the statistics of a program trying to become something it may never be. They’re players on teams people will eventually forget, a roster item within a program that football fans begrudgingly pay attention to just enough so they can helicopter in for the good years and a program that actual fans often question their allegiance to after years of heartbreak and near misses.
Fandom though; at its core, is about loyalty and commitment. It’s about passion and that crazy little bit piece of you that loves something even though it hurts to love it.
And few people might love Penn State more than Jamari Wheeler and John Harrar. Two guys who have been at the wrong end of countless games, on the butt end of every joke about their program, have seen their coach fired without explanation and have gotten up to say the same thing Wheeler told his teammates at half, knee still aching.
And in this hell world we live in these days, there’s something to be said for the people who don’t stop fighting. Something said for remembering people like that too, no matter what their record might be at the end of the day.