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Throwback Thursday: Northwestern defeats Penn State in double overtime, annoying NBA fans across the country

Never schedule Northwestern/Penn State basketball for ESPN.

Northwestern v Illinois in Big Ten Men's Basketball Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It’s March 1, 2003. One of the most anticipated regular season NBA games of the season is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m., featuring the 41-19 Sacramento Kings and the 40-17 San Antonio Spurs. It’s a battle between the two best teams in the Western Conference. The Kings are coming off a controversial loss in the 2002 Western Conference Finals, but still have Vlade, Peja, and Chris Webber. The Spurs, led by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginóbili, are playing great ball and lead the Midwest Division.

But you’re not watching the first quarter of that game. Instead, you’re watching double overtime between two of the worst major conference teams in college basketball at a half-full Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Northwestern’s time at the bottom of the Big Ten was crushingly boring. The team infamously went 0-16 in conference under Kevin O’Neill in 1999-2000. It took years to recover any semblance of normality at the program. Sure, there were a few nice wins here and there. Carmody even had a shockingly decent 7-9 conference season in 2001-2002. But overall, between 1999 and 2003, Northwestern won 13 conference games. Not ideal.

What could I possibly want to highlight from this stretch of ineptitude? Well, this was Northwestern’s only double-overtime game between 1990 and 2013. In honor of Northwestern’s very dumb overtime win over Illinois last week, it’s fitting that I drudge up another horrendous overtime sequence from the distance past. That’s interesting, right? No? Just let me recap it anyway, ok?

The year after that first decent Carmody season started promisingly with a solid road win over Kansas State. Northwestern sat at 8-3 before conference play. Then, it lost seven consecutive games, five by double-digits. Despite Northwestern’s forward-thinking propensity to shoot tons of threes, its lack of athleticism on defense doomed the Wildcats to quite a few bad losses. Northwestern turned it around by beating Indiana and Purdue in February, but then lost another three games by double-digits (one to an Illinois team with freshman year Deron Williams).

With that, Northwestern entered a matchup against 6-18 Penn State. The Nittany Lions were the other Big Ten basketball bottom feeder of the early 2000s. If anything, the Lions were even worse than Northwestern for a longer stretch of time. Northwestern would go 8-8 in 2003-2004. Penn State wouldn’t reach .500 in the Big Ten until 2009. This year’s Penn State team would be under Jerry Dunn, who resigned at the end of the season.

The game, broadcasted by ESPN, for some reason, started with a 10-minute lighting delay. Awesome! The first half was an absolute slog. Both teams combined to shoot 35 percent from the field on 54 shots. The score at halftime was 28-26, Northwestern. In the second half, Carmody’s vaunted Princeton offense (haha) finally got going and Northwestern held a solid 51-39 lead with 10:36 left. Northwestern went on a 15-3 run to get that lead, with 11 of 12 points coming from the legend Jitim Young. That should’ve been enough, right? We can get to Spurs/Kings, right?

Oh no, this is Northwestern basketball. Penn State immediately went on a 12-0 run to tie the game at 51-51. Brandon Cameron put Penn State in the lead late in the second half, and it looked like the Wildcats were headed for yet another humiliating loss.

Northwestern battled back to take a 63-58 lead with 46.8 seconds remaining in regulation. ESPN may have been slightly worried, but now it seemed like things would be okay. Somehow, the Wildcats failed to close it out. Jan Jagla picked up an and-1 to make it 63-60, but then missed the free throw. But Northwestern failed to box out properly and Sharif Chambliss scored to give Penn State a four-point possession. Good. Northwestern hit both free throws on the other end, but Brandon Watkins drove back down the court and hit a clutch game-tying three with 8 seconds left. Like last week’s game against Illinois, Northwestern’s next possession to win the game came to nothing.

Northwestern again managed to edge ahead in the first overtime period. The Wildcats were up by two and needed a stop to win the game with under 30 seconds remaining. Watkins got free again and hit a game-tying layup. Northwestern does nothing in its next possession. Double overtime. NBA fans everywhere groaned.

This time, Northwestern put Penn State away. Winston Blake hit a jumper to put Northwestern up 79-76 with a minute left, and Penn State couldn’t pull off any more miracles. After what I assume was the quickest ESPN cut of all time, America finally got to watch Kings/Spurs. The Spurs won 108-100, and later went on to win the 2003 NBA Finals, the first title for one of the greatest cores in NBA history.

But for Northwestern men’s basketball, the double-overtime win in the game that wouldn’t end was completely meaningless. Jitim Young scored 26 points in this game, and he came back better than ever for his senior season. In Young’s senior year, Carmody’s squad would go 8-8 in the Big Ten, the first non-losing conference record since 1967-1968.

Thankfully, Northwestern and Penn State have gotten a lot better at basketball. When they meet at Welsh-Ryan again on January 20th, we should get a matchup between two top-50 teams by KenPom rankings (Northwestern and Penn State ended 2003 at 167 and 209, respectively). That doesn’t necessarily mean basketball players will stop doing dumb things at the end of games, though.

(all facts sourced to the Daily Northwestern archives and

Other Tristan Jung deep dives into Northwestern sports history: