WASHINGTON, D.C. — Carrying a five-game losing streak into Wednesday evening’s matinee against favored Nebraska, the Penn State men’s basketball team needed a reset. In the wake of their worst stretch of the season, and without a win in nearly a full month, team captains Payton Banks and Terrence Samuel conducted a “heart-to-heart” meeting with the rest of the Nittany Lions team, desperately needing a revival. And if there was any added discouragement, Nebraska handed Penn State a 16-point loss when the two last met on Feb. 11.
With the fresh mindset, Penn State took the awe-important first step toward saving their season with the 76-67 overtime win over the Corn Huskers in the first round of the Big Ten conference tournament at the Verizon Center. The Nittany Lions (15-17, 7-12) will now face Michigan State on Friday at approximately 2:30 p.m.
“We got together, got stuff off our chest,” said Banks, who collected five points and nine rebounds. “That helped a lot, building team chemistry. We needed to let the staff what was going on with the team. We solved it all, and came out here and played great. Hopefully we can bring it tomorrow.”
Penn State led for 41 of the 45 total minutes. In fact, Nebraska never led, and managed to hang around long enough to force the extra five-minute overtime.
Nittany Lions’ 6-foot-9 freshman forward Mike Watkins turned in a double-double with 18 points on 9-for-12 shooting and 11 rebounds. He also added eight blocks.
“It was critical,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said of Watkins’ performance. “It was all about defending and rebounding, protecting the rim. He did it all today.”
Freshman Lamar Stevens added 16 points and five rebounds and Tony Carr totaled 11 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Shep Garner also played a large hand with 16 points (4-for-7 from deep). Penn State shot 44 percent from the floor (24-for-55) and converted 21 of their 26 attempts from the free throw line.
They held Nebraska in check for most of Wednesday, capping them to 34 percent shooting and winning the rebound battle, 45-41.
“We had confidence in our guys,” Chambers said. “They had confidence in themselves. For the first time, we responded. Missing shots didn’t dictate our effort.”
Penn State jumped out to a 27-16 lead midway through the first half on a thunderous dunk and layup two minutes later from Watkins.
“I knew coming into this game it was going to be very good for me,” Watkins said.
Nebraska responded with a 14-3 run to knot it at 30-30 with under five minutes until halftime before Penn State ran off an 8-0 run to help take a 38-33 lead into the break.
Penn State pushed their lead to 51-41 with just over 11 minutes to go and maintained a 55-46 advantage with five minutes remaining off another dunk from Watkins. Nebraska rallied with a 12-3 run to gridlock it at 58-all with 55 seconds to go.
The Nittany Lions put the game out of reach with 1:09 left in overtime as they opened up a 72-62 lead via a 12-2 run and outscored Nebraska 16-7 in the extra period.
Evan Taylor paced Nebraska (12-19, 6-13) with 15 points while Tai Webster pitched in with 12 points, five rebounds and three assists.
Penn State is set to play Michigan State tomorrow afternoon in the second round of the conference tournament , a team they beat 72-63 earlier in the season. The winner of that will then play Minnesota on Friday.
“We try not to look ahead,” Banks said. “We’re going to enjoy this one, then watch some film Michigan State. We obviously feel like we can play with anyone in this league. It’s just about stringing it together. Our sense of urgency is up, and that’s what we were missing during the year.”
A full photo gallery of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament will be available on Monday.