UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It was the play Penn State wanted. Coach Patrick Chambers told his players in a timeout that if Princeton used deep single coverage, they should attempt a full-court pass.
Sure enough, Princeton lined up in that formation, guard Tim Frazier snuck behind the defense and was open next to the basket.
It was the atmosphere Penn State wanted, too. Rec Hall, for this special event, “The Return to Rec,” was packed. Students wore white Frazier t-shirts and blue Santa Claus caps. They were loud and they cared, and they stood for the final seconds of overtime.
Frazier’s shot rimmed out. Princeton won, 81-79, in overtime Saturday afternoon after trailing by as many as 20 points in the second half.
Penn State fell to 8-4.
“We missed a great opportunity,” guard D.J. Newbill said. “We had everything we wanted. We had the fans here, the new jerseys, with everybody back. We were playing good basketball. We just let it slip away.”
For the first time in his two-plus years at Penn State, Chambers saw a line for a basketball game. Students arrived early to Rec Hall for the first game in 17 years in the bandbox, built in the 1920s and used for everything from boxing, to speeches by famous figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., to intramurals, to volleyball and to wrestling.
The games here in the early 1990s attained cult-legend status. An upset against a No. 1 Indiana team would have happened if not for an incorrect officiating call in a game Chambers attended. He had snuck in with his sisters. He knew the place was special.
By game time Chambers said he had focused on basketball, but at 8:30 a.m. he let his mind wander. He went up to the top of Rec Hall with his daughter, surveying the scene. He and other members of the Penn State athletic department worked strenuously over several months to solve the logistical nightmare this event presented.
“We’re a free throw away, a stop away from sitting up here, celebrating,” Chambers said. “Because it should be celebrating. This should be celebrated. What went on here is amazing. Seventeen years. It’s pretty incredible.”
Penn State led, 35-23, at the half, playing its best basketball in transition. Newbill and Frazier had 22 points combined and would finish with 48. But they also had seven turnovers total.
For a while Penn State did everything right. It held Princeton’s best player, T.J. Bray, to one field goal and Princeton (8-1) at one point had missed 17 of 20 3-point attempts.
With 10 minutes to play, his team facing a big deficit, Princeton coach Mitch Henderson confessed to thinking about the blizzard outside and whether his team could get home on time.
Then Princeton began making 3s. Penn State turned the ball over (20 times for the game), missed two key free throws and was unable to close out the game, a bug-a-boo that has haunted Chambers’ tenure.
The last opportunity to prolong the game faded when Frazier missed a free throw and the shot at the end of overtime.
“That’s kind of how the game goes,” Frazier said. “Even if I did get fouled, the call could have gone either way. I still should have made the shot.”
“It’s unfortunate it comes down to that,” Chambers said, “and he’s a fifth-year senior. … That will weigh on that kid. I feel for him. He was so proud to play in this building. My team was so proud to be here. I’ve never felt like that before about the basketball program.”
Chambers’ postgame news conference was as much therapy as a Q-&-A session. He spoke like he needed to get every disappointing detail off his chest. Asked about continuing to reach the fans, he said, “I’m running out of tricks.
“We’re headed in the right direction. We’re doing the right things.”
About an hour after the game, workers already were removing the hardwood floor. Penn State will be back at Bryce Jordan Center for the rest of the season, trying to regain the momentum taken away from it Saturday.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.