STATE COLLEGE, Pa.: A 14-point loss to No. 14 Ohio State was the least of D.J. Newbill’s concerns Saturday.
Make no mistake that Penn State’s lead guard wants desperately for his team to get its first Big Ten win. The 65-51 loss to the Buckeyes extended a month-long stretch of misery for the Nittany Lions (8-12, 0-8 Big Ten) in conference play.
But Saturday was a Coaches vs. Cancer game in Happy Valley. For Newbill, that means a lot after losing his mother to cancer less than two months before the season started.
“It’s a great privilege. I’m happy I could be part of something like this,” Newbill said after the game in which coaches wore sneakers and fans were encouraged to wear gray in solidarity. “At the end of the day, it wasn’t about a win or a loss. It was about fighting cancer.”
The team has stayed tight during this tough stretch. A close-knit bond was evident in September when the entire squad traveled to Philadelphia for the funeral of Newbill’s mother.
Four games into the season, Newbill had to slide over from shooting guard to run the point after Tim Frazier suffered a season-ending left Achilles injury.
Saturday, Newbill had 15 points and six assists against the Buckeyes (15-4, 5-2) and their standout point guard, Aaron Craft.
“He did a great job,” coach Patrick Chambers said about Newbill. “Obviously, [the day] brings up a emotions for him — that affected him to start the game. But once the ball goes up, it’s time to play.”
Sam Thompson scored 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting, and Deshaun Thomas added 11 points, well below his Big Ten-leading average of 20.5.
Thompson picked up the slack against the Nittany Lions, who went 11-plus minutes of the first half without a field goal.
Ohio State gradually asserted control in the second half, though scrappy Penn State tried to hang around with defense and got within 10 points with 2:41 remaining.
Only the Nittany Lions couldn’t stop Thompson. Left open in the corner, the lithe 6-foot-7 forward drove the baseline and contorted his body around 6-9 center Sasa Borovnjak for a layup, three-point play and 43-27 lead with about 13:30 left.
Jermaine Marshall added 16 points for the Nittany Lions, who have lost 18 in a row to the Buckeyes. Borovnjak scored nine.
The Nittany Lions did draw within 59-49 with 2:41 left off two foul shots from Marshall.
But Ohio State had an answer at the free-throw line in Lenzelle Smith Jr., who hit 5-of-6 from the stripe over the final 4:13. Smith finished with 11 points and eight rebounds.
Ohio State held a 39-25 advantage on the boards, and limited the Nittany Lions to just two offensive boards. Penn State did commit a season-low four turnovers.
Poor shooting early, though, had spoiled Penn State’s thoughts for an upset.
Ohio State pulled away midway through the first half after Penn State went cold from the field after an impressive drive by Newbill. The Nittany Lions guard stopped suddenly in the lane, causing Craft to trip backward to leave an obstacle-free path to the basket for an 11-all tie with 13:34 left.
And then the Nittany Lions went more than 11 minutes until their next field goal. By that time, Marshall’s 3 with 1:27 in the half cut Ohio State’s lead to 27-16.
In between, they had bad misses from their big men; a drive from Marshall that bounced tantalizingly on the rim before skipping off; and five missed 3s in the half by Brandon Taylor, several wide open from the wing.
The Nittany Lions tried to keep up throughout the afternoon with defense, mixing up looks against Ohio State. Though they often lack in talent, Chambers’ team has been well-schooled in hustling and scrambling for loose balls for 40 minutes.
“I feel like we’re close, if we can just get a third scorer,” Chambers said.
“Our defense is really at a good place.”