EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) – Penn State coach Pat Chambers struggled to explain why his Nittany Lions have experienced success on the road during Big Ten play.
A stifling defensive effort by Penn State against Northwestern Thursday at Welsh-Ryan Arena was exactly what the Nittany Lions needed. The Wildcats had no answer for Penn State’s zone defense as the Nittany Lions cruised to a 59-32 win.
Penn State’s five road wins are the most since 2008-09 when they won six.
“We play better on the road than we do at home,” Chambers said. “It’s wild. It’s crazy. It’s probably because we’re by ourselves and we’re more close together and tight knit.”
The Nittany Lions’ 2-3 zone defense frustrated Northwestern the entire game. The Wildcats’ 32 points were a season low and the fewest scored by any team in Big Ten play. Northwestern shot 23.3 percent from the field and went 3 of 22 behind the arc (season-low 13.6 percent).
Balanced scoring helped the Nittany Lions (6-11 Big Ten, 15-15) pick apart Northwestern’s defense. Tim Frazier and Brandon Taylor, each of whom scored 11 points, were two of eight different players to score for Penn State. The Nittany Lions shot 50 percent from the field and were led by D.J. Newbill’s 12 points.
“At the end of the year, you’re hoping your defense gets to this point,” Chambers said. “If you take away 3s, we’re in the top one or two in defensive field goal percentage. . We have a better understanding of our rotations. When guys are out there talking and I can hear them talking, that’s when you know they’re dialed in.”
The Wildcats (5-12, 12-18) lost their seventh consecutive game with their last win over a month ago against Minnesota on Feb. 1.
“We played extremely well defensively tonight,” Newbill said. “We were really active, had a lot of energy, intensity. We were just making the right reads.”
It didn’t help that the Wildcats’ two best shooters, Drew Crawford and Tre Demps, shot a combined 3 of 19 for 11 points. By halftime, Penn State built a 17-point lead, and Northwestern never threatened during the second half. Alex Olah led the Wildcats with 14 points.
Neither team shot well to open the game. Penn State and Northwestern each made 1 of 6 field goal attempts (16.7 percent) in the first five minutes. The Wildcats went on a scoring drought for over four minutes during which the Nittany Lions built an 8-2 lead.
Northwestern’s struggles persisted as they scored just nine points through the first 13 and a half minutes of the game. A free throw by Crawford at the 6:26 mark of the first half finally put Northwestern in double digits and ended a 12-0 run by Penn State, with the Nittany Lions leading 22-10.
Penn State built a double-digit lead midway through the first half thanks to good ball movement and timely 3-pointers. Penn State led by as many as 20 points in the first half and took a 32-15 lead into halftime.
With the Wildcats trailing 39-17, Northwestern head coach Chris Collins was given a technical foul for unsportsmanlike conduct during the under-16 media timeout. Collins was berating the officials because he believed Penn State should have been called for a three-second violation the previous possession. Frazier ultimately scored on that possession to put Penn State ahead by 22.
“Obviously it was a disappointing night for us,” Collins said. “I feel badly for the seniors that we couldn’t play better tonight and have a chance to be competitive. It’s the same thing the whole year with the offense. Give Penn State credit.”
Defensive breakdowns created open looks for Penn State on the perimeter throughout the game. Taylor made 3 of 5 3-point attempts while John Johnson (eight points) was 2 for 2.
It was a tough final home game for Crawford, one of the best players in Northwestern’s history. Crawford, who is ranked in the top 5 in 11 different statistical career categories, scored only six points in 38 minutes of action and shot 1 for 4 from the free throw line.
“I don’t second guess that at all,” Crawford said of his decision to return for a fifth year. “I believe in coach Collins. He’s been a great mentor to me. My teammates, they’re awesome. I love those guys and our coaching staff. I don’t question my decision for a second.”