Blue White Illustrated

March 2024

Penn State Sports Magazine

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6 4 M A R C H 2 0 2 4 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M B rad Underwood joined a unique fra- ternity of Big Ten coaches on Feb. 21. The Illinois men's basketball coach had watched his 12th-ranked team lose to Penn State in stunning fashion moments earlier, falling 90-89 when the Nittany Lions overcame a seven-point deficit in the final 35 seconds. But Underwood's im- mediate impressions weren't about his side's collapse. Instead, like Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Iowa's Fran McCaffery and Michigan's acting head coach Phil Martelli before him, Underwood found himself thinking about the venue. Those previous coaches had faced PSU at the Palestra in Phila- delphia, the fabled Cathedral of College Basketball. Underwood had led his Illini into Rec Hall, a Palestra doppelgänger, and he couldn't help but be impressed with the ambiance of the old gym, which was packed with boisterous fans. "Tremendous atmosphere. Great envi- ronment. I wish we were back in the other place," Underwood said. "It created a nice buzz and atmosphere. Congratulations to the administration for trying something new." Not quite done, Underwood followed with a sentence not spoken on Penn State's campus in roughly three decades: "That was a great environment for col- lege basketball." Penn State didn't entirely fill the 6,500- seat venue. The "Return to Rec" game was open only to season-ticket holders, and a few didn't show up for the midweek con- test, resulting in an official attendance of 6,150. Still, the old gym bubbled with en- ergy from the opening tip. The Nittany Lions shot lights-out to start, building a nine-point advantage, but Illini guard Terrence Shannon started to cook before the half, giving his side a 48-41 lead. Penn State was on the verge of falling apart, but junior guard Nick Kern Jr. kept the hosts within striking distance in the second half, and in the final 2:20, every- thing changed. Penn State outscored the Illini 13-2 during that span to earn the sur- prising win. It was, in every sense, a moment for Penn State basketball, and first-year coach Mike Rhoades fully understood its gravity. For his present team — and for the stable foundation PSU is attempting to build — the outcome was a form of posi- tive reinforcement. "I'm a huge believer in young people when they come together, stick together, go through stuff together," he said. "It's amazing what they can accomplish, what they can do, and how they believe in each other. Maybe tonight was that moment. "We've had some other ones through- out the year. It's never easy. It's a journey. There are highs, and there are lows. There are tough moments, and there are tough decisions. "We're here for them. We're here to build a basketball team for 18- to 23-year- olds and watch them turn into something. Maybe today is a moment that gives us a kick start or pushes us and propels us. That would be cool." It propelled the Lions to an 83-74 vic- tory over Indiana three days later, with senior point guard Ace Baldwin Jr. totaling 23 points, 9 assists and 4 steals. That game took place at the Bryce Jordan Center, so as tempting as it may be to attribute the victory over Illinois to the mystique of Rec Hall, the truth is that Penn State has been competitive throughout the Big Ten sea- son, compiling an 8-9 mark in conference play (14-14 overall) heading into its visit to Iowa on Feb. 27. Still, Rec Hall is an underused asset. There are many reasons why PSU rarely returns to its former home. The court has to be brought in and assembled, and there are disruptions for the other programs that call Rec Hall home in the winter: wrestling, men's volleyball, and men's and women's gymnastics. Rhoades said after the Illinois game that he was appreciative of the effort that made it possible. "To everybody who had something to do with tonight, to make this real, I just want to say thank you," he said. "A lot of people were involved in it, and thank you so much." What's likely now clear to Rhoades and anyone else who attended the game is that those costs are worth it, albeit on a limited basis. A full-time move across campus is not possible. Penn State has made invest- ments recently in the basketball offices and the players' locker room. The Nittany Lions will continue to use the BJC as their home base. Ticket sales are another factor to con- sider. Averaging 11,034 fans in their home weekend Big Ten games, the Lions can't turn down the revenue of roughly 4,500 extra tickets sold. However, weekday home games aren't as well attended and wouldn't lead to a HOME AWAY FROM HOME Rec Hall can help boost Penn State's basketball program, but there are limits to its utility NAT E BAU E R | N AT E . B A U E R @ O N 3 . C O M There were 6,150 fans on hand when the Nittany Lions welcomed No. 12 Illinois to Rec Hall on Feb. 21. PHOTO BY STEVE MANUEL MEN'S BASKETBALL

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