Some day, Kebba Njie might be a dominant force for Penn State.
The 6-10 freshman had his moments this season, including a 4-for-4, 8-point night against Texas A&M that helped Penn State to its first NCAA Tournament win in 22 years.
But as one of the youngsters on a team that rated as the oldest in the Big Dance, Njie didn’t provide any answers for the Nittany Lions against a Texas team that brought way more toughness to the Round of 32 than its Lonestar State rival mustered in the opening round.
Unlike the Aggies, the Longhorns seemingly looked at a scouting report, took it seriously, and played accordingly. The No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region wasn’t about to get Funk’d up by 2nd-year coach Micah Shrewsberry’s unorthodox, high-effort, 3-point bombing squad.
In holding off the Nittany Lions 71-66 Saturday evening in Des Moines, Iowa, Texas punished Penn State for its limitations — ones that can’t always be overcome with intensity, will, grit and determination. Especially when the 3-point shot isn’t falling.
Two days after making 13 of 22 shots from behind the arc in a 76-59 romp over A&M, the Lions shot just 8-of-28 (28.6%) against Texas, including a 2-for-13 start through the first 20 minutes. The looks and the success rate improved in the 2nd half (6/15, 40%), but not enough to offset the punishment the Lions absorbed in the paint.
The Lions had no answers for 6-9 senior Dylan Disu, who finished 14-for-20 from the field for 28 points, setting a school record for field goals in an NCAA Tournament game. He shot 8-of-10 in the second half, often guarded by thick-bodied but vertically challenged Miles Dread, listed at 6-4 and 235. Njie played most of his 12 minutes in the first half, going 0-for-1 from the field with 0 rebounds (or any other stats, for that matter).
Disu, who entered the game averaging 8.5 points and 4.3 rebounds this season, grabbed 10 caroms to record a double-double. It was his highest-scoring game since transferring from Vanderbilt 2 years ago, though it didn’t completely come out of nowhere. With the Commodores in February of 2021, he posted a 29-point, 16-rebound game in a narrow loss to Kentucky. And he’s reached double figures and averaged 9 boards in the 5 wins that have netted the Longhorns the Big 12 tournament title and a spot in the Sweet 16.
Penn State wound up on the wrong end of the rebound (37-30), assist (10-6) and turnover (5-9) battles. It couldn’t stop Disu at all. The 3s weren’t falling, as Andrew Funk — coming off an 8-for-10 game vs. A&M — went 0-for-3 in the first half and finished 2-for-11.
All that, and Penn State had the game in its hands with less than 5 minutes to play, leading 58-55 after an improbable 10-0 run. The magical ride that had the Lions in just their 3rd NCAAs this century and first since 2011 seemed destined to continue.
Texas was helping by going 1-for-13 from 3 itself.
Alas, the team that lived mostly by the 3 died by the 3, as Funk missed his final 5 long-range attempts while Disu was going 5-for-5 from inside the arc over the final 4:33.
Funk, a grad transfer from Bucknell, finishes his 1 season as a Lion with 112 made 3s and memories of being one of the main stories of the Tournament’s opening round. But Texas smothered him, forcing him into jumping, twisting attempts off a screens as he went scoreless on 4 shots in the first half. Seth Lundy, the Lions’ other main 3-point shooter, also went scoreless on 4 misses — all 3s — before the break. Only Dread managed to connect from deep in the first half, going 2-for-2 while the rest of the squad went 0-for-11.
All-America point guard Jalen Pickett couldn’t pick up enough of the slack, finishing with 1 assist and 7 turnovers after posting 8 and 0 in a masterful, 40-minute outing against A&M. Bootyball ran into resistance in the form of versatile 6-6 forward Timmy Allen, backstopped by Disu. Pickett, the senior 2nd-year transfer from Siena, misfired several times from short-range under the Horns’ harassment, finishing 5-of-13 from the field and 1-of-3 from the line for 11 points.
Among the 6 Lions who likely closed their college careers Saturday night, only Dread and Camren Wynter — a grad transfer from Drexel — shot the ball well. Dread did his damage with 4 3-pointers while Wynter shot 5-9 from the field and 6-of-6 from the line for a team-high 16 points.
As far as most fans are concerned, the PSU basketball program goes dormant most off-seasons. But that will not be the case this year.
This run, which ended with a 23-14 record including 3 upset victories in the Big Ten Tournament and 1 more in the Big Dance, has created quite a bit of buzz. Shrewsberry has become the man of the hour, and AD Pat Kraft is making noises about providing a pay raise and resources to convince the 46-year-old that neither Georgetown nor Notre Dame’s money is any good.
Though this is Shrewsberry’s first D1 head coaching gig, he has an impressive resume as an assistant at both the college and NBA levels. His first 2 recruiting classes rank among the best Penn State has pulled in over the past 2 decades. And he’s squeezed the maximum yield out of a roster made up of mid-major imports and veteran role players.
But what he’s achieved is analogous to what Mel Tucker did in his 2nd season running Michigan State’s football program. The Spartans might not reach those heights again anytime soon, yet Tucker’s $9.5 million salary will be on the books for almost another decade. In the weeks ahead, we’ll find out just how committed Kraft and the other powers that be at Penn State are to bringing big time basketball to the Bryce Jordan Center more than once in a blue moon. It’ll take more than raiding the likes of Siena, Bucknell and Drexel to get that done.
True PSU hoops fans have to hope Shrewsberry sticks around and proves more analogous to MSU’s Tom Izzo, whose basketball program has gone to 25 straight NCAA Tournaments. PSU has made the Tournament 10 times, and hasn’t made back-to-back trips since the 1950s.
Penn State probably won’t be dancing this time next year. The returning Lions who played against Texas — assuming Lundy doesn’t take his Covid bonus season — contributed 4 points, 4 rebounds and 1 assist. Njie, a 4-star recruit who made 26 starts this season, will likely be the face of the program in 2023-24. Coming off a string of goose eggs against Texas, that’s a tall order, even for a young man who goes 6-10, 237.
But a lot can happen over the course of a year, as Shrewsberry and his mad bombers proved in winning 9 of 11 before narrowly falling to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. There will be players available in the transfer portal, and recruiting isn’t necessarily done.
Penn State basketball might have more magic in store for faithful fans, if not next year then soon. And if not, this year was a blast.