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Penn State Basketball: Watkins Injured As Nittany Lions Fall 72-63 To No. 17 Michigan

on February 21, 2018 10:20 PM

Less than five minutes into the game Mike Watkins laid face first under the basket, motionless as a crowd of over 13,000 went silent.

After consultation, Watkins would be helped to his feet, hobbling down the tunnel into the bowels of the Bryce Jordan Center. He would return later for just a minute, totaling five on the night. No points, no rebounds, no blocks, no assists.

And Penn State's NCAA chances went with him.

The eventual autopsy of Penn State basketball's season will demand more nuance, but in its most watered down form, the Nittany Lions lost arguably their most important player for two of its most important games. Just days earlier foul trouble rendered Watkins to nine minutes, Penn State falling by just three at the buzzer to No.3 Purdue in the process, the Boilermakers also without one of its most crucial pieces.

On Wednesday night the more permanent departure of Penn State's big man was as much an emotional punch as it was a tangible blow to the Nittany Lions' late charge at an at-large bid. Watkins may still trail Tony Carr and Josh Reaves when it comes to the heart and scoring on this particular team, but he is a game changer on both ends of the floor in a handful of ways. It's evident when he's on the floor and even clearer when he isn't.

But -a bit surprisingly- the Nittany Lions never really rolled over. Even as Michigan blitzed Carr and forced turnovers and bad shots, Penn State found a way to hang around. Slightly knocked out on their feet, but the Nittany Lions were still standing when the bell rang, a 34-26 halftime deficit could have been more, but it wasn't.

In the second half Carr would come alive, and eight point deficit turning into a one-point lead in just four minutes. The building coming alive, the loss of Watkins a thing of the past, or at least something ignored until later. Lamar Stevens would chip in along the way, the sophomore combo putting up 40 points, and putting Penn State on its back as the Nittany Lions traded blows with Michigan. Shep Garner would contribute just three points on his senior night, Josh Reaves' eight points the only other Penn State player near double figures.

With 6:39 to go something that felt a little inevitable finally happened, Michigan took a much more commanding eight point lead as the Wolverines leaned on bench scoring and timely shooting to start to pull away.

And the Nittany Lions refused to relent, again, cutting the deficit to just four points with 2:55 to play. It seemed possible, Penn State winning without Watkins, stealing another Top 20 win from a team late in the year.

But it was over in a blink, two Michigan baskets made it a nine point game with 1:28 to go. Penn State would get closer, but only a miracle would save them, and it never came.

It is hard to know if Penn State would have beaten Purdue or Michigan with Watkins' regular contributions. It certainly would have been easier to imagine, especially on Wednesday night. Nevertheless the Nittany Lions' shortcomings were exposed, a bench that is better at providing mistake-free basketball than scoring support (Michigan outscored Penn State's bench 34-6) and a starting five that can only do much on its own when handicapped. Neither truth a surprise, but more obvious as deeper and equally talented team, found a way to pull away with fewer heroics. A small nod to the fact Penn State's late season surge has been as much about the play of individuals as it has been Penn State as a whole.

Watkins' future is unknown for now. With him the Nittany Lions are still plenty capable of beating Nebraska and mounting a Big Ten Tournament run. Without him those odds seem dubious at best.

So like much of Penn State's season there are a lot of reasons why the Nittany Lions lost, but it only took four minutes to guess why they might on Wednesday.

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