While much of the country was caught up in the hoopla that was the BCS Championship Game, an amazing comeback was taking place at Penn State. The Nittany Lions looked to be well on their way to their first Big Ten win of the season, leading a cold-shooting Michigan at the half 31-16. But if you're familiar with John Beilein-coached teams you know that at the snap of a finger they can heat up from the field. And that's exactly what happened in the second half, as the Wolverines outscored their opponents 48-24 in the final twenty minutes on their way to a 64-55 victory. DeShawn Sims led the way with 25 points and Laval Lucas-Perry knocked down four key three pointers in the comeback.
Down 42-26 with just over twelve minutes left in the game after a Chris Babb three pointer the Wolverines outscored Penn State 38-13 for the remainder of the contest. What also helped Michigan was their defense on All-Big Ten performer Talor Battle, who went scoreless in the second half and finished with nine points. Penn State also finished the game with seventeen turnovers, something that doesn't harm you much when your opponent goes 0-for-12 from behind the arc as Michigan did in the first half. But when they recover to shoot 7-for-12 in the second half you're in trouble.
Despite Penn State's 0-3 league record this is a huge win for the Wolverines, who moved to 2-1 on the season. Instead of fighting for their lives simply to stay above water following a loss they host Minnesota on Sunday with a chance to move to 3-1 and pick up a solid resume win in the process.
Three Key Happenings
1. Northeastern continues George Mason's road woes. Of course the Patriots did win a road game in league play, beating UNC Wilmington. But to be frank the Seahawks aren't likely to be a player in the CAA race. The wins over Old Dominion and Hofstra followed a serious beating at the hands of Radford, and George Mason fell to 1-4 on the road with their 71-46 loss at Northeastern last night. Chase Allen was the star for Bill Coen's squad, leading the Huskies in scoring with twenty points. Ryan Pearson led GMU with 20 points and 10 rebounds but he really didn't receive much help; no player scored more than seven points (Cam Long) and as a team the Patriots shot 37.7% from the field. If George Mason is to remain a contender in the CAA their offensive execution on the road has to improve against the other contenders for the conference title.
As for the Huskies, it was easy for some to forget about how good this team is in light of their less than stellar non-conference record. But keep in mind the teams they took on in those games, facing the likes of Siena, Utah State, Rhode Island, Saint Mary's and Providence. Matt Janning is one of the more versatile players you'll see and the frontcourt has a pair of solid contributors in Manny Adako and Nkem Ojougboh. Now they're part of a five-way tie for first place and it should be of no surprise that they're in that position.
2. Long Island takes over sole possession of first place in the NEC. The matchup between the Blackbirds and Robert Morris matched two of the three undefeated teams in the league, and that came in seemingly headed in different directions. The Colonials were riding a three-game win streak due to the emergence of some key role players and the improvement of senior Rob Robinson, and this was despite the loss of Jimmy Langhurst for the rest of the season. LIU on the other hand had lost six straight, a stretch that featured the two-game suspension of their best player (Jaytornah Wisseh) and a suddenly porous defense. Well, the recent trends went out with the night's refuse thanks to Kyle Johnson, who scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds in LIU's 74-64 win in Brooklyn.
Michael Culpo gave RMU a 44-41 lead with a three pointer but all that did was trigger a 14-2 LIU run that gave the Blackbirds the lead for good. In seasons past LIU would lean heavily upon Wisseh to make things happen; they don't have to do that this season. Johnson has been a steady force alongside Wisseh in the backcourt and freshmen Jamal Olawasere and Kenny Onyechi have played well enough to merit serious consideration for NEC Rookie of the Year honors. They were expected to be a factor in the race despite the loss of some key players expected to contribute this season (Aurimas Adomaitis, Lucas Faggiano and Julian Boyd), and they showed exactly why last night.
3. Western Kentucky wins in overtime at South Alabama. In a game matching two contenders in the Sun Belt the Hilltoppers remained undefeated in league play with a 67-64 overtime win in Mobile (their second consecutive season beating USA on the road). AJ Slaughter led the way with eighteen points, including a three pointer that gave the Tops a 65-64 lead in the extra session and Steffphon Pettigrew added seventeen and made the two free throws that sealed it. There wasn't much that separated these two, as is the case when they meet. Last season the visitors won both regular season meetings, which could bode well for Ronnie Arrow's squad when the meet again on February 18th. WKU has played just two league games to the Jaguars' four and those games in hand could be the difference in this race; there are teams in the Sun Belt (Arkansas State and Denver being two of the many) who can spoil either teams' run to a regular season title.
Top Three Games
1. Western Kentucky 67, South Alabama 64 (OT) See above.
2. Quinnipiac 64, Mount St. Mary's 63 Two James Feldeine (18 points) free throws sealed the game for the Bobcats, and it's a good thing that he made both as Jeremy Goode (game-high 24 points) hit a three-pointer with one second left on the clock. The Mount, preseason favorites to win the league, drops to 0-3 in the NEC.
3. Coastal Carolina 58, UNC Asheville 57 A Chad Gray jumper with 5.5 seconds left in the game won it for the Chanticleers, who move to 5-0 in the Big South as a result. Gray scored 18 off the bench to lead the way while J.P. Primm led Asheville with 18 points of his own.
Three Notable Performances
1. F Jonathan Rodriguez (Campbell) The senior posted the line of 24 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and four steals in the Camels' 82-73 loss at Mercer.
2. F Jeremy Buttrell (Illinois-Chicago) Buttrell scored 31 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in the Flames' 76-67 loss at Youngstown State. As a team UIC finished with twenty-six rebounds.
3. G Nate Rohnert (Denver) One of the Sun Belt's most versatile players, Rohnert scored 27 points while adding seven assists, three rebounds and three steals in the Pioneers' 75-66 win over New Orleans.