Battle carries Penn State to Big Ten finals

INDIANAPOLIS -- When the last of the four bombs dropped, Talor Battle backpedaled, looked briefly into the stands and laughed.

He was on fire. In a span of 155 seconds, the Penn State guard had blitzed Michigan State with four successive 3-pointers. The first two were open, clean looks coming off solid screens. The third was a tough one, over the diligent defense of Mike Kebler, who stands four inches taller than Battle. The fourth was a joke -- Kalin Lucas was all over him, and Battle was several feet behind the 3-point line.

By the time he was done, so were the Spartans. A one-point Penn State lead had become nine, on its way to a 61-48 final score that puts the Nittany Lions in the Big Ten tournament final for the first time.

“I thought Michigan State played pretty good defense,” Battle said. “Not to sound cocky by any means, but I was just zoned in. I couldn’t see [any] defender. Just me and the rim.”

His stroke was so pure, and the moment felt so good, the senior from Albany, N.Y., indulged himself with a brief chuckle.

That was fitting. Because it looks like Battle is getting the last laugh after all.

The best basketball player in Penn State history has toiled for four years without full appreciation because the Nittany Lions have been thoroughly mediocre. Coming into this season, Penn State was just six games over .500 in Battle’s three years, and 14 games under .500 in Big Ten play. There was an NIT championship in 2009, but zero NCAA tournament appearances.

His senior season was more of the same -- brilliant performances that often went unnoticed as the Nittany Lions trended toward .500. He became just the third player in Division I history to accumulate 2,000 points, 600 rebounds and 500 assists, and the world shrugged. He broke the 56-year-old school scoring record and the world yawned.

Heck, they even yawned on Battle’s own campus, where basketball is the ignored stepchild to football. Average home attendance at Bryce-Jordan Arena this season was 7,457, less than half of the listed capacity.

So Battle and the rest of the Lions came here to this tournament cloaked in obscurity. They were 16-13, 9-9 in Big Ten play, and largely disregarded as a potential NCAA tourney team.

Three victories later, most bracketologists have Penn State dancing no matter what happens Sunday against No. 1 Ohio State.

“It would be huge,” Battle said. “That’s what I’ve wanted my whole career.”

He wanted one chance to play on the biggest stage. One chance to show that a scrawny 6-footer with a moderate recruiting profile could take a team to the promised land.

Unless the selection committee pulls open a trap door beneath the Nittanies, they should see their name in the bracket Sunday night.

“I mean, what else do you want us to do?” asked coach Ed DeChellis, who has not guided Penn State to the NCAAs in any of his previous seven seasons in State College. “We’ve done the things we needed to do.”

By that, DeChellis means that he’s scheduled more ambitiously. Penn State played nonconference games against Mississippi, Maryland and Virginia Tech, among others.

The problem is that Penn State lost several of those nonconference games -- by 13 to Ole Miss, by 23 to Maryland and by 10 to Virginia Tech. Throw in a 10-point home loss to Maine and you can understand the bubble trouble.

But backed up against the wall for the past month, Penn State has won all the games it absolutely had to win to stay in contention. It had to protect home court in February against Northwestern and Minnesota, and it did. Then it had to beat those same teams on the road to ensure a .500 league record, and it did.

Then it had to come here and make something big happen. And it did.

“We kept fighting and fighting,” DeChellis said, “and won a lot of games the last three weeks.”

The most important have come in the past three days. After surviving last-place Indiana on Thursday, Penn State upset Wisconsin in a brutal slog of a game, 36-33. Battle had shot horrifically for nearly 78 minutes here in Conseco Fieldhouse until he finally hit a big shot, a 3-pointer that clinched the victory over the Badgers.

That seemed to get him going Saturday. Battle strafed Michigan State for a game-high 25 points, and added seven rebounds and three assists for good measure. He made six of his first eight 3s.

“When he’s on, he’s on,” explained teammate Jermaine Marshall. “And he’s hard to turn off.”

He’s even harder to bench. Battle played all 40 minutes against the Spartans, something he’s now done seven times in Penn State’s past eight games.

This is not time to rest. The final surge to the promised land is at hand. The urgency for Battle and his fellow seniors is tangible.

“I think Battle has grown a lot over his career, and he's definitely playing the best basketball because he's not forcing things and things that I thought he might have done other years,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. “I think he's really grown.”

That growth has earned its just reward. At the end of a valorous, but undervalued four-year career, Battle should be able to get the last laugh when the field of 68 is unveiled Sunday.