EAST LANSING — The news of football coach Mark Dantonio’s retirement loomed over Michigan State this evening, and the somber tone carried over to the disappointing 75-70 loss at home to No. 22 Penn State, as the No. 16 Spartans have now lost their second straight, and third in their last five.
Unlike the recent losses to Indiana and Wisconsin, however, the Spartans came out strong vs. the Nittany Lions. A rare pair of 3-pointers from Malik Hall and Xavier Tillman helped the Spartans jump out to a 12-4 lead early. Unfortunately for them, the Nittany Lions continued to fight and all of the sudden were leading 16-15 a couple minutes later.
The Nittany Lions took as large as an 11-point lead in the first half. Leading the charge was forward Lamar Stevens, who finished the game with 24 points on 9-for-20 shooting from the floor.
But some Cassius Winston craftsmanship and a technical foul on the Penn State bench helped the Spartans stop the bleeding before halftime, trailing 43-37.
The Nittany Lions held their tantalizing lead for the opening minutes of the second half, getting it back up to double digits. Slam dunks from Tillman and Marcus Bingham Jr. got the Breslin Center crowd fired up, and the Spartans were finally able to tie the game up at 51 apiece with just under 14 minutes to play.
A nice baseline drive layup from Rocket Watts finally broke the ice as the Spartans regained a 55-53 lead with 11:51 remaining. The game remained nip-and-tuck the rest of the way, and a big spark plug for the Spartans was senior swingman Kyle Ahrens, who hit a 3-pointer and drew a charge within one minute of play.
Stevens continued his rampage, adding seven points in the final 3:48, including several clutch free throws.
The biggest shock for the Spartans came with 16 seconds remaining and Penn State leading 71-68. Winston took the inbound pass and rushed the ball up the floor, driving the lane and finishing through contact as the whistle blew. The Breslin Center erupted, and Winston stepped to the line with 11 seconds on the clock to attempt a potential game-tying free throw.
And then, he missed it. The 86% free throw shooter on the season shockingly missed it, after his 25 points and nine assists were much of the reason why the Spartans were even in the game at the end.
“It felt good,” Winston said of the missed free throw after the game. “I wasn’t nervous or anything like that, it’s a free throw. I let it go, it hit the back rim, I was a little shocked.”
The Spartans played the foul game, trying to catch up in the final seconds, but Stevens and Curtis Jones sank all four of Penn State’s free throw attempts after Winston’s miss. And now, the Spartans have dropped their first home game to a Big Ten opponent, while the Nittany Lions have won their third straight on the road.
In the end, the biggest discrepancy was turnovers and the results thereof. The Spartans turned it over 15 times to the Nittany Lions’ eight, and Penn State turned the Spartans’ mistakes into 21 points off turnovers.
Other than that… it’s hard to find an explanation for why the reeling Spartans continue to reel. They’ll look to right the ship once again on Saturday vs. arch-rival Michigan.
Trent Balley is the men’s basketball beat reporter for Impact89FM. Follow him on Twitter at @tbal91.