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Penn State History Lesson: A Look Back At Hoops’ NCAA Tournament Runs

Penn State men’s basketball has, against all odds, found its way to the NCAA Tournament. Led by head coach Micah Shrewsberry and All-American Jalen Pickett, the Nittany Lions are the No. 10 seed in this year’s tournament and will play No. 7-seeded Texas A&M.

The Nittany Lions went to the Big Dance nine times in program history and have seen the structure of the tournament change dramatically. They have felt euphoria and heartbreak, and they even had a little Cinderella run of their own.

For newer fans and history buffs alike, we took a look through all nine of Penn State’s appearances and summarized the notable events that happened.

1942 — Elite Eight Loss, Regional Third-Place Win

The NCAA Tournament began in 1939, and three years later, Penn State made its debut in the tournament. Up until 1950, only eight teams competed in the tournament, and in the first round, Penn State played Dartmouth and lost 44-39.

The Nittany Lions’ leading scorer was John Egli, who had 12 points. He was the only player to score double-digit points for Penn State. Dartmouth and its leading scorer, James Olsen, who had 19 points, were too much to handle, which led to an early loss.

Penn State wasn’t completely eliminated, as it competed in a regional third-place game. The Nittany Lions beat Illinois to finish the tournament with a regional third-place finish. Lawrence Gent had 21 points for Penn State, while no one on Illinois scored double-digit points.

1952 — Sweet Sixteen Loss, Regional Third-Place Loss

The Jesse Arnelle era was in full swing during the 1952 NCAA Tournament, but unfortunately, Arnelle couldn’t push the Nittany Lions to a win. At this time, the tournament expanded to 16 teams with four groups of four teams each at the beginning of the tournament. Penn State played Kentucky in the first round and got blown out of the water by the Wildcats 82-54. Arnelle had 22 points in the loss.

In the third-place game, the Nittany Lions’ luck would not change. Even though Arnelle had 22 points again, they couldn’t beat North Carolina State and lost 69-60. Penn State finished the season without a tournament victory.

1954 — National Third-Place Victory

1954 was the best postseason run in Penn State history, and the field was expanded to 24 teams. In the first round, Penn State played Toledo and won 62-50. Arnelle led the Nittany Lions with 13 points, and Jim Brewer and Ron Weidenhammer also had double-digit points.

In the Sweet Sixteen, the Nittany Lions played LSU, which had a bye for the first round of the tournament. The Nittany Lions played spoiler and upset the Tigers 78-70, despite Bob Pettit’s 34 points to keep LSU in the game. Arnelle had 24 points to keep Penn State’s momentum going as it went to the Elite Eight.

Arnelle’s 22 points allowed the Nittany Lions to beat Notre Dame 71-63 in the Elite Eight to make the Final Four for the first time in school history. The Cinderella run came to an end in the Final Four, however, as they lost to eventual National Champion La Salle. To no one’s surprise, Arnelle led the Nittany Lions in scoring with 18 points.

Despite the loss in the Final Four, Penn State won the National Third Place game. The Nittany Lions beat USC 70-61 behind Arnelle’s 25 points, and the Nittany Lions would never again reach the Final Four in their next six tournament appearances.

1955 — Regional Third-Place Loss

Coached by former player John Egli, the Nittany Lions were back in the tournament after coming so painfully close to a championship in 1954. In the first round, Penn State beat Memphis State (now Memphis University) in a close battle 59-55. Arnelle had 20 points and Earl Fields had 17 points.

In the Sweet Sixteen, the Nittany Lions got beaten badly by Iowa, losing 82-53. Arnelle was held to only 11 points, and Bob Hoffman led the team in scoring with 14. They then got blown out again by Kentucky in the regional third-place game, even though Arnelle had a better game with 25 points.

1965 — First Round Loss

Ten years after the last NCAA Tournament appearance, the Nittany Lions were back trying to play for a championship. They played Princeton in the first round and lost 60-58. Penn State was led by Jim Reed and his 16 points, while Princeton was led by eventual Most Outstanding Player Bill Bradley with his 22 points. Princeton went on to the Final Four and lost to Michigan.

1991 — Second Round Loss

It took the Nittany Lions 26 years to get back to the NCAA Tournament. The tournament went under some dramatic changes in the years the Nittany Lions were not there, including the introduction of seeds and the expansion to the field to 64. This time around, they were the No. 13 seed and played No. 4-seeded UCLA. They were able to pull off the upset 74-69 behind James Barnes’ 19 points and Monroe Brown’s double-double.

Their Cinderella run came to an end with another team’s Cinderella run, as they lost in the next round to the 12-seed, Eastern Michigan, 71-68 in overtime. Four different players scored 12 points for the Nittany Lions even though the clock struck midnight on their historic run.

1996 — First Round Loss

Penn State got its best seeding in the program’s history when it got the No. 5 seed in 1996. However, its postseason came to a shocking end when it was upset by No. 12-seeded Arkansas 86-80. Calvin Booth led the team with 20 points, and Matt Gaudio had a double-double with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Arkansas went on to the Sweet Sixteen and lost to top-seed UMass.

2001 — Sweet Sixteen Loss

The Nittany Lions got ranked as a No. 7 seed during their next tournament appearance, and they had their best finish in the modern tournament era. They managed to beat No. 10-seeded Providence 69-59 behind Gyasi Cline-Heard’s 17 points. Then, they pulled the biggest upset in team history after they beat the Julius Peppers-led, No. 2-seeded North Carolina 82-74. Joe Crispin and Titus Ivory had 21 points each in the upset victory.

The Cinderella story came to an end in the Sweet Sixteen to in-state rival and No. 11-seeded Temple with an 84-72 loss. Ivory led the team with 20 points, and Cline-Heard had 18 points, but it wasn’t enough to overpower the Owls, who went on to lose in the Elite Eight.

2011 — First Round Loss

Ten years later, the Nittany Lions were back in the tournament as the No. 10 seed in a rematch against No. 7-seeded Temple. Talor Battle’s 23 points weren’t enough to come away with a win, as the Nittany Lions lost 66-64. Tim Frazier added 15 points in the loss. The head coach at the time, Ed DeChellis, would leave Penn State for Navy at the end of the season. His replacement wound up being Pat Chambers, who would run the program for the next 10 years.

2020 Honorable Mention — What Could’ve Been

If it wasn’t for the COVID-19 pandemic, we would’ve seen the Nittany Lions dance in 2020. Experts across the country predicted Penn State as a No. 5 or No. 6 seed, possibly playing in Albany. The team claimed a 20-5 record before a late-season skid and had a first-team All-Big Ten superstar in Lamar Stevens. What could’ve been…

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About the Author

Owen Abbey

Owen Abbey was a Secondary Education major before he graduated from the wonderful institution known as Penn State. When he was not writing for the blog, he enjoyed rooting for the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens, supporting Penn State basketball and softball, dreaming of all of the ways he would win the TV show "Survivor," and yes mom, actually doing school work. All of this work prepared him to teach his own class of students, which was always his true passion. He still can be found on Twitter @theowenabbey and can be reached for questions and comments at [email protected]

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