Penn State basketball heard everyone tell them that its head-turning run was all but over. From nearing the fray that is the offseason coaching carousel back in early-January, to finding themselves on the NCAA Tournament bubble a month later, the Nittany Lions ended the season on the wrong note.
No Mike Watkins, after his injury against Michigan, and losses in its last three regular season games plagued the Nittany Lions’ hopes for the Big Dance after a stretch of games in which Penn State won six out of seven games. Meanwhile, a third matchup against the ranked Ohio State Buckeyes loomed on Friday night.
It’s difficult to beat a ranked team once, or even twice in a season as an unranked opponent. But three times in one season? Sheesh, it’s hard enough to beat a team like Northwestern three times in a single year (which Penn State did not – going 2-1 against the Wildcats).
Just how hard is it? Well, only six unranked teams have accomplished the feat of beating the same ranked team three times in a single season, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The other six programs all made the NCAA Tournament.
None of that matters to Julian Moore, a fifth-year senior who is stepping up in the absence of Watkins and giving the Nittany Lions a valiant effort in the paint in these do-or-die games. Since the Purdue loss five games ago, in which Watkins only tallied nine minutes because of foul trouble, Moore stepped up to the challenge in the crucial Big Ten road game. Moore played 14 minutes against the Boilermakers, tallying six points after making all three of his shot attempts in the game.
When Watkins went down with a right leg injury in the following game against Michigan, Moore gave Penn State six points and three rebounds, despite receiving just 11 minutes of playing time. Pat Chambers decided to roll with a smaller lineup featuring Lamar Stevens at the ‘5’ position for stretches of the game.
“I think all of us have stepped up, not just myself,” Moore said in the locker room after Friday’s win over Ohio State. “He’s (Watkins) a big part of our team, but at the same time nobody is Mike. While it was rough to lose him, we all improved in our own roles and covered up from it.”
In the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament, many viewers and fans may have been surprised to see John Harrar receive his first start. According to Moore, however, this was all a part of the plan.
“It’s John’s time to step in and he’s done an exceptional job,” Moore said. “I’ve been playing second off the bench the entire season, and when Mike went down I tried to switch to being a starter.”
“I talked to Coach, and it was more beneficial for us instead of losing Mike in his top spot and me in my second spot, just to switch out and put John in the starting spot.”
Harrar may have started, but his six minutes of action paled in comparison to Moore, a product of Germantown Academy in Philly. Moore racked up 24 minutes on the floor, at the time the second-highest amount of playing time he’s received this year, finishing with three blocks and three rebounds in a gritty opening game against Northwestern.
“We focus on defense and rebounding,” Moore said. “It’s something we’ve always been working on, and it pays off after awhile.”
But Moore saved his best for last night’s quarterfinal triumph, playing a season-high 28 minutes. He made both of his shots from the field, finishing with a solid stat-line: Five points, five rebounds, a block and a steal. Four of those rebounds came in the opening half, including two offensive boards.
Even more important was his defense: Moore held freshman phenom Kaleb Wesson to just five points and three rebounds in 20 minutes, as the young Buckeye picked up his third foul early in the second half. Wesson had entered the game as Ohio State’s third-best rebounder, while averaging nearly 11 points per game.
“It was huge for us. Me and John were just trying to out-work them, and our guards were putting good pressure on the ball,” Moore said. “We knew it was a key to the game like it has been the last couple times, and it worked out for us.”
“I’m just happy we’re winning, when it comes to tournament time it’s all about moving on to that next game.”
We’ll see if the Nittany Lions can continue their run this afternoon when they take on Purdue at 4:30 p.m. at Madison Square Garden. Fans can catch the game on CBS.