Struggling Nittany Lions Look To Find Their ‘Swagger and Toughness’
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – After ripping through five straight opponents to move to 11-3, two of them being Big Ten foes, the Penn State Nittany Lions fell flat the past two games.
Wednesday night’s contest in Ann Arbor against the Michigan Wolverines found the team shooting 25% from 3-point land in the second half, with 26 points in the paint and 10 points off the bench - seven of them from freshmen forward Evan Mahaffey. On the flip side, Michigan managed to shoot 40% from deep in that final frame, but were in line with Penn State’s points in the paint with 28 points and had 14 points off the bench.
Sunday’s matchup saw similar results, after the Nittany Lions took a 37-31 lead. The top-ranked Purdue Boilermakers soon took over the Palestra in the second half and never looked back.
In the second half alone, Purdue posted a 62.5% percentage from three and 66.7% from the floor. The points in the paint were easy pickings for the Boilermakers, especially when junior center Zach Edey racked up 30 points with 13 boards and three blocks.
As for Penn State, it found itself shooting 20% from downtown and 36.7% from the field. The defense could not catch up to Purdue’s attack, and the offense fell stagnant.
Now on a two-game skid, Penn State has a lot more questions than answers at this time. For head coach Micah Shrewsberry, in terms of playing out long stretches, the Nittany Lions want to find something in the grit and grind of Big Ten play to be successful, especially against Indiana who is coming to town this week.
“They’re going to make it hard on us,” Shrewsberry said. “They’re going to challenge us, so this will be a good test for us. We’ve got to bounce back. We have to find our swagger. We have got to find our toughness.”
Senior-plus guard Myles Dread knows how sweet having the lead is against the No. 1 team in the nation feels like heading into the locker rooms. However, he wants to keep the pedal to the metal when it comes to second half performances. “We just can’t get complacent from half to half,” Dread said.
From last night’s postgame press conference, Shrewsberry mentioned that the seniors have not been playing like seniors. The second-year head coach later elaborated that it meant a more, grown-up approach in a variety of ways.
“Different moments call for different things,” Shrewsberry said. “Sometimes, it’s scoring. Sometimes, it’s defense. Sometimes, it’s leadership. Sometimes, it’s poise. That’s what a senior brings.”
Dread understands the duties of the seniors on the squad. The desire to succeed is the quality that the fifth-year wants to get out of the team.
“How bad do you want it?” Dread said. “What kind of legacy do you want to leave? Those are the conversations that we have.”
The one light is the slow emergence of freshman forward Evan Mahaffey. The 6-foot-6 Cincinnati native, has found more time on the court, racking up 15 points in the past two games in 36 minutes.
Shrewsberry has noticed his presence on the perimeter defensively, and he wants him as a threat to hold up opposing offenses and to create a spark plug for the Nittany Lions.
“Defensively, right now, we’re not very good,” Shrewsberry said. “But he gives us a different element where he can pressure the ball on the perimeter. He’s got long arms. He’s active. He’s hard to throw the ball around. He can get steals and deflections just by being there. So we need that kind of effort on the defensive end.”
All the work on the defense is stemming from what Mahaffey says he brings onto the court: energy.
“Coming off the bench as a freshman, you’re out there to help those older guys who have been there,” Mahaffey said. “So that’s the one thing that I’m really focused on no matter where we need it. Rebounding, screening, whatever it is, I’m trying to make sure I do it. So, if I want to play, that’s what I’m going to do.”
The fifth-year guard saw the versatility on defense firsthand, where Mahaffey tried to block a fastbreak attempt by Purdue, but was called goaltending. It didn’t matter the result of the play, Dread felt the vibrations shift.
“Plays like that. That brings us energy,” Dread said. “I do my best to try to feed off whatever little energy we can find.”
With the third-straight threat in the low post going against the Nittany Lions, Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis brings the same physicality that Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson and Purdue’s Zach Edey brings, but a quicker attack in his repertoire.
“Being able to catch it a little bit further off the block, face up and drive it, catch it at the top of the key and ripping the drive,” Shrewsberry said. “He’s so different than those guys. He’s good with his back to the basket also, but he brings that element of quickness which we got to be ready for.”
Posting 17.7 points per game and 9.6 rebounds per game, it adds another tall task of the gauntlet for Penn State’s latest conference schedule. For Dread, he wants to leave the past in the past and continue to move forward.
“I try my best to preach to the team that we have a ‘flush the toilet’ mentality,” Dread said. “When you use the bathroom, you don’t leave it in there. Flush it.”
Penn State takes on the Indiana Hoosiers at the Bryce Jordan Center on Wednesday, January 11 at 7 p.m.
Jonathan Draeger is a third-year broadcast journalism major. To contact him, email email@example.com.
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