For the first 20 minutes, there wasn't much to cheer about for those that braved the elements to watch Penn State host No. 2-ranked Ohio State. For the second 20 minutes, Penn State almost made it worth their while.
The Nittany Lions overcame a 40-19 halftime deficit, missing a 3-pointer as time expired to lose 64-62 to the Buckeyes before an announced crowd of just over 10,000 people. It was more like a couple thousand people that stuck around to see Penn State's ferocious near comeback attempt.
Ohio State led by as many as 25 points during the game - with just over two minutes left in the first half. Penn State started the second with five quick points, cutting Ohio State's lead to 40-24. However, a 7-0 answer by the Buckeyes made it look like Ohio State would pull away.
Penn State, led by a game-high 19 points and 10 rebounds from junior Geary Claxton, had other ideas. The Nittany Lions outscored the Buckeyes 38-17 over the last 16 minutes to make the game interesting for the few thousand that braved snow, ice and minus-zero degree windchills to see Penn State (10-14, 1-10 Big Ten) host Ohio State (23-3, 11-1 Big Ten).
After Ron Lewis missed the front-end of a one-and-one with just 10 seconds left, Penn State raced down the court and wound up attempting a shot as time expired. A missed look by Ben Luber, however, clanked off the back of the iron, preserving the Buckeye win.
Jamelle Cornley, a 6-5 sophomore from Brookhaven High School in Columbus, added 14 points for Penn State. He also added five rebounds against his hometown team - which he scored 17 points and seven rebounds a game against last season.
Ohio State dominated in the first half behind 7-1 center Greg Oden. Oden, who had 11 points and seven rebounds at halftime, finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots. Lewis added 12 points. Jamar Butler and Daequan Cook both had 11 points for Ohio State.
What Penn State Did Right and Ohio State Did Wrong
* For the umpteenth time this season, Charles Dickens couldn't have scripted a game in any more predictable a fashion. Ohio State jumped out to a 21-point halftime lead, and had to breathe a collective sigh of relief as they watched a potential game-winning jump shot fall harmlessly away from the rim. The Buckeyes' often-read novel, "A Tale of Two Halves," wrote a fresh chapter Wednesday night by blowing a large advantage. It's like an avalanche that starts with a small snowball trickling down the mountain top. Next thing you know, the entire mountain is tumbling down as everyone is simply trying to avoid getting buried.
* Specifically speaking, Ohio State lacked intensity in the second half. Penn State was getting down the court in transition and canning open jump shots as Ohio State struggled to find spot-up shooters. Ohio State's defense was simply not up to par in the second 20 minutes. To Penn State's credit, Danny Morrissey and especially Luber and Mike Walker were hitting some clutch shots.
* Ohio State's offense looks like a deer caught in the headlights after holding big leads. This falls back on Thad Matta when it becomes a continuing problem. Sure, teams avoid going in long droughts by senior leadership and quality decision-making - two things Ohio State is lacking at various times. Lewis had one of his best halves of the season in the first half, showing excellent patience, unselfish decision-making and great judgment. But in the second half, he Ivan Harris and Jamar Butler all started forcing passes, taking quick shots and played a little sloppy with the basketball. Matta must find a way to carry over intensity and offensive execution in a game where they jump to a big lead.
* There was virtually no penetration by Ohio State in the second half. Penn State switched from a 2-3 zone to a more active 1-3-1 zone in the last 20 minutes. This move rattled Ohio State, took them out of their rhythm and still managed to virtually deny any attempt at an entry pass to Oden. Ohio State has learned to attack the rim more in recent weeks, but it was necessary in a game like this and it didn't happen. Instead, Ohio State - who earned open looks with crisp passing in the first half, settled for jumpers in the second.
* Generally I have been a fan of the substitution patterns shown this season by Matta. That said, I thought when Penn State was getting some momentum after the Oden technical foul, I thought it was a bad precedent taking Oden out at that point. Sure enough, Penn State responded after the technical foul with a big run and gained enough momentum to keep the pressure on the rest of the way. Given Oden's fouls situation (two fouls at that point), being on the road and having been in a situation of surrendering large leads before, I wouldn't have expected Matta to elect sitting Oden at that moment in time.
* Ohio State had 18 assists on 22 made baskets. What does that say about their execution? It means quick shots and not getting a ton of good looks because of turnovers or missed shots. More importantly, Penn State simply outworked Ohio State on the boards late in the game.
What Ohio State Did Right and Penn State Did Wrong
* In the first half, Ohio State dominated Penn State down low. Because Ohio State was attacking Penn State's zone, even when they were missing, Oden was getting inside the block-out and using his size and strength to finish on the rebound put-back. Ohio State simply stopped attacking late.
* Cook showed once again his value offensively off the bench. He scored 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting. He also had four rebounds and a pair of steals. Matta chose to go with the senior Lewis in the second half, which has become a routine procedure in recent weeks.
* You can't emphasize enough how crisp basketball Ohio State played in the first half. It was nearly a perfect half of basketball, something that's been said so many times before. It makes you wonder how a team that plays so well can look so bad after a 15-minute intermission. Still, there is an important bottom line: despite the inconsistency and talk of "lacking a killer instinct," Ohio State is 23-0 against everyone not named in the AP top five teams in the nation. Despite these close calls, inconsistent play, sloppy showings, being 23-0 against teams you're supposed to beat is a good argument for having a killer instinct. If Ohio State doesn't have a killer instinct, maybe you could call it a "wounding" instinct. They sting their prey, they just have to learn to put it out for good.
* It was another big night for Othello Hunter. The 6-9 junior had six boards and was extremely active on both the offensive and defensive end. Hunter and Cook are likely the biggest keys to NCAA Tournament success.
You can look at it two ways for Ohio State.
Either they can be criticized for not holding onto sizeable leads or they can be applauded for coming out and getting that lead to begin with. Ohio State's problem is holding onto a lead. Florida's problem often is coming out and getting into a large deficit and having to storm back in the second half. Both are equally dangerous, but I would take my chances holding onto a 20-point lead than coming back consistently from a 15-point deficit.
There's no question Ohio State must learn to maintain intensity for 40 minutes. That's exactly what it comes down to both defensively and offensively. Their gameplan early on was fantastic and well-executed. Although Penn State adjusted defensively, Ohio State's mindset should have remained the same - attack the zone and continue moving the ball.
That did not happen.
Ohio State has a dangerous group of players heading into the NCAA Tournament. It's an overused cliche, but they truly could get upset early or make a deep run. The odds, however, are in their favor as they're beating the teams they need to beat - even if they're making it closer than they should.
It's a four-game regular season for Ohio State. They go to Minnesota, back home against Penn State and then Wisconsin, which likely will be for the Big Ten Championship, and again on the road against Michigan.
Remember what they say at this time of the year? Win and advance. It's all about survival.