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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern holds off Penn State 68-63 on Super Bowl Sunday

A classic Big Ten rock fight.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t the main event of the day, but the physicality was closer to the gridiron than the court.

Without Ty Berry, Northwestern (17-7, 7-5 B1G) escaped Penn State (12-12, 6-7 B1G) 68-63, staying undefeated at home during conference play. The ‘Cats shot only 31.7% from the field but converted 22 from the charity stripe to eke out a narrow victory.

All five starters reached double figures, with Boo Buie leading the charge with 15 points, most of which came in the second half. Brooks Barnhizer and Ryan Langborg also finished strong, each closing out with 14 points.

For Penn State, Nick Kern Jr. led the scoring with 18 points, while Ace Baldwin. Jr finished closely behind with 17. Qudus Wahab also proved to be a big factor, finishing with three blocks on the game and massively weakening NU’s presence in the paint.

Penn State won the tip, and Zach Hicks hit a quick three to start the scoring. Matt Nicholson immediately answered with a two, but Qudus Wahab answered back to put PSU up 5-2. Two steals — one by each team — allowed Ryan Langborg to cut the deficit, but his shot clanked off the back iron. Northwestern’s interior defense’s early struggles continued as Wahab got another lay-in to further increase the Penn State lead. On the other end, the ‘Cats offense started to get going as Nick Martinelli hit a two and Brooks Barnhizer hit a trey to tie the game at 7 apiece off an NU steal at the under-16 media timeout.

Out of the timeout, Leo O’Boyle was fouled on a three for the Nittany Lions but only made one of three from the charity stripe. On the next possession for NU, Barnhizer’s shot was swatted away by Wahab, but the ‘Cats retained possession. Subsequently, Luke Hunger drilled a three to give Northwestern the lead, but that was quickly followed by an Ace Baldwin Jr. floater to even the score once more at 10-10. Langborg drilled one from deep off a rebound to restore the ‘Cats lead, which was followed by a Jordan Clayton foul to bring the game into another media timeout.

Blake Smith checked in for only his second appearance of the season for the ‘Cats and immediately conceded a foul. Shortly after, a Martinelli steal led to a Matt Nicholson flush, which Penn State quickly answered courtesy of Nick Kern Jr. bucket. A Favour Aire bucket tied it up at 16, and Kern Jr. got to the rim once more to give the Nittany Lions another lead. However, two successful free throws from Nicholson knotted the game at 18.

Out of the under-eight timeout, Barnhizer nabbed a steal off a PSU inbound pass, but Baldwin Jr. recovered possession and drew a foul. A Hicks fadeaway gave Penn State a four-point lead, but a 6-0 run put the ‘Cats up 24-22 with just under five minutes remaining in the half. Jameel Brown ended Penn State’s skid with a three, just before the shot clock expired, to put PSU in front again.

Two Barnhizer free throws changed the lead yet again, with him later forcing a steal to give the ‘Cats possession off a good Penn State opportunity. Buie finally got on the board with a three-point play, and a Penn State airball set up Northwestern for the final shot of the half, but Wahab sent it into the stands — sending both teams to the locker room with NU ahead 29-27.

Out of the break, both teams struggled to find the rim until Kern Jr. hit two free throws to equalize the game at 29. A Baldwin Jr. jump shot gave the Nittany Lions a lead, which set up a back-and-forth between the two teams as Nicholson and Hicks traded buckets and the lead. A crucial Buie three-point play and Martinelli bucket had the ‘Cats up 37-34, but a D’Marco Dunn triple quickly erased this advantage. On the next possession for NU, Buie hit a long three, with the crowd erupting as Agent Zero started to get into a groove after a cold first half.

After the media timeout, Martinelli hit his signature floater to put the ‘Cats up five points. Crucial buckets from Martinelli and Buie further expanded this lead, as Northwestern emerged with a 48-40 advantage before a timeout on the floor with just under 11 minutes to go.

Wahab recorded his third block of the game on a Barnhizer layup attempt, as Penn State narrowed the gap in half. On the other end, NU responded swiftly with a Martinelli slam, but an open Hicks drilled a triple cut the lead to three. Not to be outdone, Langborg drilled his second triple of the game to put Northwestern up 53-47 at the under-8 timeout.

Northwestern’s shooting woes continued with Langborg and Barnhizer both missing wide-open, three-point attempts. Penn State responded on the other end wit buckets from Baldwin Jr. and Kern Jr., making it a one-possession game. Martinelli split a pair at the free throw line, but Kern Jr. responded again to make it a 54-53 Northwestern lead.

Out of another media timeout, Langborg hit a huge three to make it a two-score game, and Penn State turned the ball over on the ensuing possession. One trip down the floor later, Nicholson proceeded to throw down a huge slam off the inbounds pass, expanding it to a 59-53 NU lead.

With less than two minutes to go, Baldwin Jr. missed a one-and-one for PSU, and an errant pass off a Penn State rebound led to a Barnhizer flush that put NU up eight; however, Baldwin Jr. hit a quick three to reduce the lead. Two Buie free throws extended the lead to seven, but Kern. Jr responded with two of his own on the other end. Penn State attempted one last gasp, but the ‘Cats held on to a 68-63 victory.

Northwestern will next be in action when it travels to Rutgers on Thursday evening. Tipoff is set for 5:30 p.m. CT, and the game will be broadcast on Big Ten Network.