Penn State coach Patrick Chambers considered Joe Paterno one of his biggest fans.
Just hours after the Nittany Lions former football coach died Sunday, Chambers pleaded with his team to play basketball Paterno-style. They did, but couldn't get a win.
The Nittany Lions relied on gritty, tenacious defense to thwart No. 11 Indiana early, but the Hoosiers rallied in the second half and eventually pulled away for a 73-54 victory.
“He loved basketball. He would always tell me a story about how he covered (Hall of Famer Bob) Cousy,” Chambers said wistfully as he spoke about Paterno. “He just wanted basketball to be successful, really wanted to give us what we needed to be able to compete in the Big Ten on a daily basis — in recruiting, in games, facilities, any amenities — he was all for it. I know that hasn't been the perception, but that's not true.”
Whatever Paterno did behind the scenes seemed to be working.
Last season, the Nittany Lions made their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2000-01.
Chambers took over this season and got his first win over a ranked team on Thursday when Tim Frazier scored with 8 seconds left to beat No. 22 Illinois. On Sunday, the Nittany Lions were trying to win their third straight game at Assembly Hall after going 0-15 there all-time.
Then, on the short bus ride from the team hotel to the arena, players and coaches were told Paterno had died at age 85 — jarring news for a team that had spent most of Saturday night praying and dealing with false reports.
Team officials scrambled to put black ribbons, that looked more like tape, on Penn State's dark blue jerseys, and a smattering of fans pinned black ribbons to their shirts.
“Joe Paterno meant so much to this university, you know,” Frazier said after scoring a team-high 21 points. “We wore ribbons for him today. It's a very tough situation.”
Indiana held a moment of silence in honor of Paterno just before tipoff, during which Chambers bowed his head in deep thought and some players tugged at the ribbons.
Paterno won an NCAA-record 409 games and was fired in November after child sex-abuse charges were filed against Jerry Sandusky, his former defensive coordinator. A few days after the firing, Paterno was diagnosed with lung cancer.
“It's very sad on a variety of levels. Our heart goes out to his family and the entire Penn State community,” Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said before the game.
The Nittany Lions (10-11, 2-6 Big Ten) limited Indiana's high-scoring offense to only 27 points and 40.9 percent shooting in the first half. They were still within nine points with 8:13 to go despite shooting 23 percent (5 of 22) in the second half.
And after Christian Watford took a hard foul right in front of the Hoosiers' bench with 6.8 seconds left, a shoving match ensued that led to a second technical foul called against Indiana's Will Sheehey, who was ejected.
“All I was trying to do was play NFL head linesman, get myself in the middle there. It was a heated battle. It was a tough foul on Christian at the end of the game,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “Tempers flare, but it was nothing more than that to me.”
The Hoosiers (16-4, 4-4) expected a physical game long before news broke of Paterno's death.
The teams combined for 48 fouls, attempted 46 free throws, grabbed 61 rebounds and came up with two intense defensive efforts.
Freshman Cody Zeller led Indiana with 18 points, and Jordan Hulls scored all 14 of his points in the second half. Watford's final two free throws gave him 11 points and seven rebounds as the Hoosiers snapped a three-game losing streak.
“The Big Ten is a physical league, and that's just how they play,” Zeller said.
For a half, it looked like Penn State would ride its defense to another win in Bloomington, the same way so many of Paterno's football teams had.
The Nittany Lions used a 9-3 run to go up 13-10 and held the lead for most of the half.
But Indiana tied the score on a tip-in by Zeller on the opening possession of the second half, then took the lead when Verdell Jones scored on a layup after a Penn State turnover. That gave Indiana a 31-29 lead that it never relinquished.
Indiana followed with two straight 3-pointers from Watford and a third from Hulls to make it 40-35, and when Sheehey scored on a layup and Matt Roth hit a 3 with 13:04 left, the Hoosiers led 45-35.
Penn Sate, which got 11 points from Nick Colella, never seriously threatened again. The Nittany Lions have lost four of five.
“We recognize the contributions that he (Paterno) has made to the university, and you know a lot of people probably don't know what he did for us,” Chambers said. “The way people perceive the basketball program, as obviously not the greatest, and what he did behind the scenes to allow us to compete on a high level and give us all the little things that people don't always see and maybe his name wasn't on it, either, the guy has left a legacy that forever will be remembered.”