Heading into Big Ten play, the Nittany Lions were rather upbeat, reeling off four straight wins including a double digit victory over Duquense to wrap up the non-conference slate.
“We feel really confident,” Penn State guard D.J. Newbill said after the Dec. 29 victory. “We feel that this game was a momentum game for us, and we realize that the Big Ten is going to have some of the toughest games that we’re going to face this year.”
Considering the Lions’ fortunes one-third of the way through the conference schedule, “tough” would be an understatement. It seems like that momentum has been all used up.
Thus far, Penn State (8-10, 0-6 Big Ten) has virtually seen it all in conference play, including a blowout loss to Northwestern at home, a near upset of Michigan State and, most recently, a down-to-the-wire collapse to lowly Nebraska on Saturday.
And whether it was missing crucial free throws against the Huskers in the final minute or being plagued by a mental collapse against the Wildcats, the Lions have not only lost, but are doing it in different fashions.
“We’re trying to handle adversity, obstacles and challenges. It’s like we’ve found new ways to lose,” coach Patrick Chambers said. “I’ve never seen an end of a game like [Saturday] in my entire life. We have to learn how to win now and play to win.”
If the Lions want to pick up a few wins in the final 12 conference games on the regular season docket, they’ll need to address season long inconsistencies and make them staples, such as field goal percentage and free throw shooting.
Penn State’s 39.3 percent from the floor ranks last in the Big Ten, and despite a respectable 71 percent clip from the foul line, the Lions missed five of six free throws with 24 seconds remaining in regulation against Nebraska.
While these issues need immediate attention, Chambers views the 18-game slate in arguably the nation’s best conference as an endurance test as opposed a sprint to the finish.
“There are still a lot of games and practices left. It’s a long season. We are on a marathon,” Chambers said. “…They can’t feel sorry for themselves because no one else feels sorry for us. We just need to keep going out and working.”
Things won’t get any easier in the near future of this long-distance race as the Lions face two top 15 teams during the next five days — No. 7 Indiana and No. 14 Ohio State.
Regardless of this and all that’s gone awry for the Lions in their losing streak, Chambers remains adamant that his team is on the cusp.
“We’ve been knocked down, and we have to get back up and keep fighting,” Chambers said. “…There’s no magic formula. We’re in games. There’s just little stretches here and there… and we have to get over the hump. They know what they have to do. We’re close. I can feel it.”