UNIVERSITY PARK - First, it was just the players. Then, it was a handful of students at the game from semester break. Then, a few more fans emptied out from behind the basket, filling the tipoff circle in the middle of the Bryce Jordan Center, jumping up and down for the best moment in Penn State basketball since the Nittany Lions won the 2009 NIT.
The postgame celebration for beating No. 18 Michigan State Saturday, 66-62, paled in comparison to what might have happened had the teams played a couple weeks from now when the spring semester would be under way. There might have been enough students to fill the entire playing surface, as has happened a few times over the years.
The challenge will be to make celebrations like Saturday's a repeat occurrence by making victories like this a repeat occurrence, particularly as the Nittany Lions continue their five-game stretch against ranked teams.
The best way the Nittany Lions (9-6, 2-2 Big Ten) can do that is for more big combined games from their four starting seniors of Talor Battle, David Jackson, Andrew Jones and Jeff Brooks. The four combined for 57 points and all scored in double figures for the first time since last February vs. Northwestern.
Battle, averaging 21.1 points per game, is expected to score. He actually went scoreless most of the second half until a free throw and later a fade-away jumper over the Spartans' Korie Luscious for a 65-62 lead with 15.3 seconds to go to finish with 12 points.
But finding regular production out of the other three seniors, who have comprised the starting frontcourt most of the last three years, has been another issue.
"Those are four seniors who've played a lot of minutes over the years," said Michigan State (10-5, 2-1) coach Tom Izzo. "They should be good."
That hasn't always been the case. The 30 combined points from Jeff Brooks (17) and Andrew Jones (13) was the most in the past two seasons, and combined with Jackson's 11 points, was perhaps the trio's most productive combined game ever, given the opposing Spartans are seeking their third straight Final Four this year.
Brooks also pulled 13 rebounds and the Nittany Lions held a 40-36 edge there, a marked improvement over losing both their last game and rebound battle to Purdue by 15. The simple math was not lost on Brooks.
"To be honest, I don't think I did anything different. I've tried to play like this all season," said Brooks. "Grab as many as we can. I play aggressive, we all play aggressive and feed off each other."
The Lions used rebounding and smart shooting for a 10-point run early in the second half, turning a 40-34 deficit into a 44-40 lead. Jones excited the team with a dunk to open the second half, and he also gave the Lions the lead for good at 62-61 on a putback with 1:53 to play.
"I thought we did a good job, but played the last 30 seconds of the first half like knuckleheads and let them score," said Penn State coach Ed DeChellis. "I challenged them to come out and they settled in defensively again. Michigan State's a really good team and well coached. You give them a cushion and play from behind, they're going to chop you up."
The Lions also got 8 points from redshirt freshman Jermaine Marshall on the heels of his career-high 18-point effort Wednesday vs. Purdue.
As for Michigan State, Izzo blamed a 2 for 10 shooting effort from third-leading scorer Draymond Green, just one rebound from foul-plagued Delvon Roe, and a 10 for 20 team effort from the line as setbacks to what he called one of the most disappointing losses of his career because he thought the preparation had been so good.
"Anytime a contender, and there are 4-5 supposed ones, loses and it's not against another contender, it's a hit to that team," said Izzo. "But at the same time there's a lot of basketball left. I almost feel for the guys this time for the way we worked, but how we played is almost unexplainable."
DeChellis didn't really have a better explanation for why his team played better "they're 18-20" but said there'd be no time to celebrate this win, not with No. 20 Illinois visiting Tuesday before trips to No. 2 Ohio State and No. 11 Purdue. The only 'contender' not playing Penn State during this stretch is Wisconsin, which the Lions play in a home-and-home later in the season.
"Go home, go to mass, a function, and watch Illinois tape. That's it," said DeChellis.