When Illinois invaded Happy Valley last March, Talor Battle's last second shot -- one that bounced four times on the rim before dropping -- sent hundreds of students sprinting onto the Bryce Jordan Center floor.
Earlier this season against the Fighting Illini at Assembly Hall, the Nittany Lions were affected by a similar bounce -- this time, one that didn't go their way.
Illinois guard Demetri McCamey managed to gain possession of the ball he had been fumbling and got off an off-balanced 3-pointer with a hesitation in mid-air. Somehow it found the bottom of the net.
Plays like the McCamey 3-pointer have characterized the Lions' season -- one that already features seven losses by six points or less, and one that has quickly turned into a rebuilding year for head coach Ed DeChellis.
When the Illini, losers of three straight games, take the BJC floor at 6:30 tonight, there will be a distinctly different meaning, and, in all likelihood, a distinctly different atmosphere from that contest last March. Much of that can be blamed on the Lions' 0-7 record in conference play and 8-11 mark overall.
Penn State has followed up last season's National Invitation Tournament title with its worst start to conference play since it started the 2002-03 season 0-10. The Lions' 10 losses to start Big Ten play that season was their worst start since beginning Big Ten play in the 1992-93 season.
The Lions are coming off an overtime loss Sunday in which they blew a 16-point second-half lead against No. 16 Wisconsin.
While DeChellis said the losses haven't changed his preparation aside from necessary lineup changes, he acknowledged they have taken a toll on his young team.
"We're upset, frustrated, all those kinds of adjectives -- dejected," DeChellis said Monday. "If you lose like that and you aren't dejected, there's something wrong with you, because you don't have that competitive spirit."
DeChellis was adamant he has a team full of players who hate to lose, regardless of the situation. In practice, he said players are constantly focused on the score of drills and scrimmages instead of simply running them.
Their problem, he said, is the inability to apply that hatred of losing to crucial plays late in games.
The Lions held second-half leads in all but two of their conference losses. Three times already this season, they were unable to convert a play in the final minute that either would have won the game or at least extended it.
But junior forward D.J. Jackson said those close losses weren't even worth thinking about.
"You can't feel sorry for yourself in this league or else you'll never have a chance," Jackson said. "We're coming in and we're focused on getting a win."
Battle, the junior guard who has had the ball in his hands in the final seconds of those three losses, said coming close is no consolation for the Lions' woeful start to conference play.
When Battle's shot fell through the net last March, it capped what he said was one of the biggest home wins in program history. Eventually, playing more home games in a packed arena with NCAA tournament implications is Battle's hope for the Penn State program. For now, though, he'll settle for a win.
"That's everyone's goal," Battle said of playing in games like last year's home clash with the Illini. "Obviously we're not there right now. We're 0-7. At this point we want to win some games. If it was Illinois or anybody else, our same goal would be just to go out and get a win."
THEN TO NOW
A weak nonconference schedule and two late-season losses after that Illinois game cost the Lions an NCAA tournament spot last season. They made the most of their NIT bid, knocking off Florida, Notre Dame and Baylor -- all tournament-caliber teams this season -- on their way to the title.
But when the tournament ended, so, too, did the careers of seniors Jamelle Cornley, Stanley Pringle and Danny Morrissey. Along with losing a combined 32.5 points per game, the Lions also lost an immeasurable amount of leadership, Indiana coach Tom Crean said.
Perhaps no one in the Big Ten knows about losing experienced players more than Crean. In his first season coaching Indiana, Crean was forced to deal with a depleted roster because of transfers following an NCAA investigation of former coach Kelvin Sampson's recruiting.
That may explain why, when Crean's Hoosiers came into Penn State and knocked off the Lions on Thursday, the first thing he did was relate the two squads.
"I know what we went through a year ago in the sense of what we lost when the program fell apart and you have no experience," Crean said. "I think it's very important that people remember how much experience they lost."
That experience, DeChellis said, is the difference between the squad he put on the court last March with tournament aspirations and the one he will put out tonight that is still searching for its first conference victory.
During last season's Illinois game, DeChellis said, his group of players did not play a great game until the final few minutes. Instead, in a sport where DeChellis says "you make your own luck," he said the Lions were "fortunate" to win.
"We didn't play particularly well," DeChellis said. "We found a way to win. We had three seniors."
This year, the Lions have no seniors, and DeChellis, who signed a three-year extension in the offseason, said finding a way to win is still something his team is figuring out. In the final five minutes and overtime of conference games, the Lions have been outscored 91-67.
Battle put it bluntly when asked the difference between last year's home game against Illinois and tonight's.
"Oh-and-seven," he said. "It's a whole different basketball team -- different players, different personnel than last year when we took the court against them here."
THE BEST 0-7 TEAM
With time winding down in Sunday's overtime loss, DeChellis met Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan at half court of a frenzied Kohl Center.
Following a loss that typified the Lions' season, one in which the Lions blew an eight-point lead in the final two minutes, DeChellis received a few words of encouragement from Ryan.
"You're the best 0-7 team I've seen," DeChellis said Ryan told him.
"Oh boy, that's comforting," the Penn State coach joked a day later at his Monday press conference.
Whether Ryan is correct or not, however, DeChellis' Lions still sit at the bottom of the conference they nearly finished second in just a season ago.
Battle has been the lone bright spot this season, leading the Lions in points, rebounds, assists and steals. He is the only player on a BCS-conference team to lead his team in those four statistical categories.
Behind Battle, the Lions' No. 2 scoring option is only averaging 8.2 points per game.
Two key pieces of last year's NIT run, Drew Jones and Jeff Brooks, have been reduced to minimal minutes on the bench. Brooks is averaging 7.2 points, and Jones just 5.5 in 23 minutes per game apiece. Since conference play started, neither has had a double-digit scoring performance.
The youth DeChellis has put on the floor in place of some struggling veterans has had problems controlling the ball in big situations. That was never more evident than in Wisconsin, when the Lions committed 18 turnovers that resulted in 33 Wisconsin points.
Given the results, DeChellis had a tough time finding solace in getting his young team experience in Big Ten play.
"Somehow this is supposed to build character," DeChellis said. "Somehow this is supposed to figure out who you are and what you're all about."
Mike DeCourcey, The Sporting News' national men's basketball writer, agreed with DeChellis, saying Penn State has been unable to build on its success from last season.
"[The NIT] was a nice step forward for a program that hadn't had much to brag about for a long time," DeCourcey said. "But I don't think you're worried about diminishing what happened last year. You're worried about making progress. At this point, I'd have to say you're not."
In terms of reaching the postseason, the Lions have been all but eliminated from an at-large NCAA tournament berth. But the players aren't focusing on that.
All Battle wants is a return to the credibility gained last season.
"I'm not sure how to do that," Battle said. "We haven't done it thus far this year, and that's the problem. We're right there most of the time, and we continue to lose. It's just gonna take us one time to get over the hump and see how good it feels to win."
DeChellis echoed Battle's sentiment, saying to regain last season's confidence, the Lions will have to start winning. The only problem, he said, is that in order to win, his team needs to have that confidence.
He called the team's current losing streak a "chicken-or-the-egg" situation.
DeCourcey pointed to the bigger picture, noting the effect the losses have had on the program.
With the Lions on the geographical outskirts of the Big Ten, DeCourcey said, it is a struggle to compete for talent in a state with traditional powers Pitt, Villanova and Temple.
But he wasn't quite ready to give up on the program.
"There are lost causes, but I think Ed is too good of a coach to let that happen," DeCourcey said. "They just have to get more good players in there, and I think they have to get better class balance, so they don't wind up where they're in a situation where they're devoid of senior leadership."
He pointed to incoming recruit Taran Buie, Battle's half-brother, and the Lions' ability to hang with Wisconsin in Madison as reasons behind a possible return to Big Ten relevance next season.
Jackson, however, pointed out that the Lions are not too far from relevance this season.
"We were right there with them at their place," Jackson said, referring to Penn State's one-point loss at Illinois Jan. 12. "Everybody knows Assembly Hall is a tough place to play, but coming in here the crowd will give us that extra energy. We'll make that one play to get the win."
But until tipoff tonight, the Lions are stuck in the basement of the conference.
With trips to No. 10 Purdue and No. 20 Ohio State looming next week, Jackson and the Lions may be looking at equaling the 2002-03 team's 0-10 start to conference play with a loss tonight to the reeling Illini.
"There aren't easy things in life, and you've got to keep going," DeChellis said. "You've got to keep fighting all the way, and somewhere along the way athletics is supposed to teach you that. Teach you a little toughness, teach you a little perseverance, test your manhood, test your character."