The outcome seemed almost preordained, what with the 11-seed Nittany Lions playing their third game in three nights and the 3-seed Boilermakers having rested since Saturday. Still, Penn State roared out of the gate to a 10-point lead. Then, a +22 PU advantage through the midsection of the game put the locals ahead 56-44 and essentially won it.
Not without a fight, though. Despite allowing .500 FG% to the Boilers, the Nits hung around and assembled a final rally that got them within 62-61.
That’s when a finishing Purdue kick supplied largely by its electric soph winget Jaden Ivey put it away. Ivey’s end-to-end dash begin by a poke away of a defensive board, then a chase down of the loose ball, then a careening drive through three Lions to a spectacular finish, was the game’s signature play.
Penn State doesn’t have a man like Ivey. Not yet anyway. But, see, Shrewsberry had something to do with signing him to Purdue. He used to be Matt Painter’s lead assistant until last year this time.
Here are four takes from PSU’s season finale:
1. John Harrar will be long remembered at Penn State. And he said the feeling’s mutual.
The Nittany Lions’ beloved departing center will probably forever be remembered for his rebound and stick-back among the entire Ohio State team in the pivotal final minutes of PSU’s 71-68 upset of the Buckeyes on Thursday night.
But he wasn’t far off in this performance – 15 points, 12 boards (6 offensive) and a couple of other big-shouldered moments around the tin. Harrar outrebounded the Purdue big man tag-team of Trevion Williams and Zack Edey (combined 10).
Afterward, he spent half his allotted time not just praising his final of three head coaches during his tenure but practically guaranteeing Micah Shrewsberry will produce a conference championship at Penn State:
“I’m so happy with my decision coming back here and being coached by Coach Shrews. He doesn’t know this, but I have a WORD document at home of four pages of his offensive and defensive concepts. Because I wanna keep playing and I love the game.
“So, wherever I go, I’m gonna follow him. I’ve been following him all year.”
Harrar then referenced the head coach’s 16-year-old son who was standing in the back of the conference room:
“Right behind you is gonna be a Big Ten champion – Braeden Shrewsberry. And guess where I’m gonna be? I know Coach always says he wants me to keep playing. But I’m flying out to that game. I hope it’s right here. And I’m gonna be right behind the bench cheering for him. That’ll be one of the happiest moments of my life, seeing Penn State win a Big Ten championship.”
2. Shrewsberry has had a juggling act in deciding the style this team should play.
The quandary all season has been one of prudence versus flow. The coach could readily see his team’s shortcomings and wanted to mitigate them as best as he could. The roster was small, not very deep and prone to erratic shooting. So, on many occasions, he employed his best assets – lead guards Jalen Pickett and Sam Sessoms – and let them get advantageous matchups through ball-screen switches, then post up selected defenders.
It was 1990s-style NBA offense that’s not always picturesque. Not only was there a lot of thump-thump from the guards, but the ball also often stuck and the wings were not involved enough. You lose fluid ball movement in exchange for control and limiting possessions.
Which he no doubt felt he needed to do last night. No team has ever made it from Wednesday to Saturday’s semifinals since the league expanded to 14 schools in 2014 and went to double-byes for the top four seeds. That means a team like Purdue is well-rested while its opponent has already played twice in two days.
Then again, sometimes the offense looked pretty damn good – and shooters Myles Dread, Dallion Johnson and Seth Lundy certainly seemed to respond better – when Shrewsberry loosened the leash a little and allowed his players to juice the pace and mash up offense on their own. The second half of the Ohio State game was a perfect example. Suddenly, everyone began shooting threes in rhythm and they started falling.
It’s been a process of discovery for the first-year head coach. He admitted learning a lesson on Friday night. After his team played moderate-tempo motion to an early 10-point lead, perhaps concerned about a depleted bench when big forward Greg Lee left with an aggravation of his right ankle injury, not to mention his team’s third game in three nights, he then shut it down and ordered the more static ball-screen stuff in the final 10 minutes of the half. Which Purdue won by +14 with its towering post players Zach Edey and Trevion Williams, quite happy to play goalie in station-to-station basketball.
When Purdue continued to add to what would become a 12-point lead midway in the second half, Shrewsberry had no choice but to again let his team freewheel. Which they did to carve all but one point off the deficit inside the 3:00 mark (62-61).
“Now the ball’s moving, we’re playing at a faster pace, we’re getting to the rim a little better.
I gotta be better.
“It’s learning experience for me. I’m happy that these guys put their trust in me and allow me to make my rookie mistakes.”
3. Jalen Pickett reiterated he will be back next season.
The Lions’ inimitable lead guard was again magnificent, this time in defeat. His 16 points and 6 assists nicely completed a trio of games in Indianapolis of which the entire league had to take notice – averages of 18 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 turnovers while shooting .600 FG% (21-of-35), including .555 3P% (6-of-11). Oh yeah, he played 117 of 120 minutes. You could say he rose to the moment. Pickett explained how he summoned the juice:
“Each game you play in this tournament is a big game. Of course, you have to being the energy and emotion. We wanted everybody on our team to bring their own energy. Because it felt basically like a home game for Purdue with all their fans, and we just had a couple. We’re there for each other on the bench.”
The Rochester product had already played three seasons at Siena before transferring to PSU, which leaves him the extra COVID year if he so chooses. He had already indicated he was leaning toward a return for a fifth season in 2022-23 but reiterated that commitment last night:
“I think it was a great decision [to come to Penn State]. Coach Shrewsberry was really special, the guys were really good. And yeah, I’m coming back next year.”
4. The 2021-22 PSU season was about as promising a start to the Shrewsberry regime as could have been hoped.
This undermanned team played hard and smart all year except for two games – the road opener at Massachusetts, and the home loss to Nebraska – both blowouts. Otherwise, the Lions 14-17 (9-14 B1G) began to show a belief in their new coach by December. And they saved their best basketball for March in what very easily could’ve been a quick bow-out from a conference tournament that had no bearing on their NCAA prospects, barring a miraculous 5-game winning streak, that is. Yet, they played as if they believed such a run was possible.
As I wrote when it happened, Izaiah Brockington’s halting decision to enter the portal after originally recommitting to PSU turned out to be the gut punch to any chance Shrewsberry had to make the NCAAs in his first year. The decision of Jamari Wheeler to transfer to Ohio State didn’t hurt so much. But when 3-bombing shooting guard Myreon Jones left for Florida and then Brockington headed for Iowa State, Shrewsberry simply didn’t have the firepower to contend. Compete? Yes. Make the bracket? No. To make it worse, Brockington was outstanding at ISU and made first-team All-Big 12.
Shrewsberry lauded the decisions of holdovers Harrar, Dread and Lundy while recalling his Zoom call to the holdovers in March as he prepared for Purdue’s first-round game against North Texas – which the Boilers lost:
“I’m not gonna get on there and tell you guys ‘I love you and we’re gonna do great.’ I don’t even know you. That’s fake. That’s phony.
“But being here for a year and being able to coach this guy next to me [Harrar] and Jalen, what they’ve done, not just this week, but the entire season… I love these two dudes. I’ll go to war with them any day of the week.
“We’re going somewhere. This program’s going somewhere.”
Moments later, his old boss Painter explained how tough it can be on a rookie coach, especially in these days of player freedom and transience:
“Trying to piece things together in your first year is hard to do, especially when everyone is new to you. But you can see how he strengthened our program. Obviously, Penn State made a great hire.”
Shrewsberry did look spent. At 45, the second-youngest head coach in the league (to Minnesota’s Ben Johnson) appeared every day his age, and said he felt as much. It was time to decompress:
“This season’s been a grind, man, first time through it. We get home tomorrow and I’m gonna put on the pajamas with the feet in ‘em. And I’m gonna watch the games.
“It sucks. We’re not gonna be in ‘em. But I’m gonna crack open a Dr. Pepper and watch.”
More PennLive sports coverage:
• ‘Hey, Jones!’: Penn State’s Indy run not done, John Harrar’s legacy, annoying airline passengers.
• Forget bonus babies and busts, consider these Penn State bargains from past NFL Drafts.
• Shore Reads: Dana O’Neil’s “The Big East” is perfect complement to Championship Week.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism