The No. 1 That Got Away
From our January/February 2013 issue: It's been 20 years since top-ranked Indiana came to town and the biggest win in Penn State basketball history never happened.
It was a game that had everything. A David vs. Goliath storyline. A national TV audience. A dingy old gym, packed with screaming fans. A ready-made villain, courtesy of Bobby Knight. And then there was the game itself, a compelling, competitive battle from start to finish—and oh, that finish, a cruel twist that helped No. 1 Indiana escape Rec Hall with an 88-84, double-overtime win. Two decades after the most memorable game in Nittany Lion hoops history, we reached out to the players, coaches, and fans who were in the building on Feb. 9, 1993. (We even got the Nittany Lion on the phone.) What follows is an oral history of that unforgettable night. It’s only too bad the referees never called us back.
The Nittany Lions entered their first Big Ten campaign on a run of four straight 20-win seasons. The last of those came as an independent in 1991– 92, a year of Big Ten enforced limbo that severely hampered recruiting.
Transfers and injuries left the Lions undermanned in ’92–93, just as they were set to open play in what was arguably the toughest conference in the country.
BRUCE PARKHILL: We were kind of limping into the Big Ten. The league didn’t integrate us right away, and we didn’t know how many years we were going to be an independent—recruiting-wise, that was awful.
DERON HAYES: The Big Ten was a great conference. We knew what we were getting into.
MICHAEL JENNINGS: The league was insane. Sick. Prior to going to the Big Ten, we were a legitimate top-30 team in the country. And then, ba-boom, reality hit.
The Lions opened Big Ten play in early January with a narrow home loss to Ohio State. Four days later, they made their first conference road trip—to Bloomington, Ind. Final score: Indiana 105, Penn State 57.
HAYES: I think we were in awe.
GREG BARTRAM: At the time, it didn’t really feel like we were in awe. But a lot of evidence supports that wemay have been. (laughs)
JENNINGS: It was one of those games that made you think, Should I be playing basketball? Or should I just be thinking about my books? It wasn’t that we weren’t prepared, because Coach Parkhill was really good about that. They had a bunch of future NBA players, and they were hot that night. It was by far the most lopsided loss I’ve ever been a part of.
BARTRAM: The fact that it was so lopsided, I think it was actually easier to put it behind us.
PARKHILL: Fortunately, the kind of guys we had on the team, it wasn’t, “Oh, God, we’ve got to play them again.” It was, “Hey, we’re better than we showed out there, and we’ll have a chance to redeem ourselves.”
That chance arrived exactly one month later, on Feb. 9, when Indiana came to Rec Hall for the rematch. Motivation was hardly lacking. The Hoosiers were now ranked No. 1 in the nation. ESPN would broadcast the game. And then there was the matter of how to welcome Knight, who before the season had famously derided the journey to Happy Valley as “a camping trip.”
PARKHILL: At Big Ten media day, Coach Knight came up to me and said, “Hey, how’d they take my comment?” He was smiling. I said, “I think you achieved what you wanted to.”
TIM DURANT: When I was the mascot, I had pretty much free rein. So I made this makeshift campsite. I had this fake campfire going at midcourt, with sticks and marshmallows. And I had a chair. When Indiana came out, Bobby Knight saw me, and I gestured for him to sit in the chair. He kind of smiled. Then I flung the chair—not at him, of course. I saw him afterward, and he was laughing about it. He said it was a good skit.
BARTRAM: It was one of only two ESPN games we had that season. In a season like that, you pick certain things to play for. We had a lot to play for that night.
LOREN CRISPELL: I was born and raised in State College, and growing up, games at Rec Hall were events. Indiana coming to town was something that everybody had anticipated from the moment we joined the Big Ten.
RAHSAAN CARLTON: We were definitely ready to go that night.
So was the crowd. Packed to the jogging track with more than 7,000 people, Rec Hall for big games in those days was raucous, sweaty, and incredibly loud. For opposing teams, its most intimidating feature was the proximity of the students to the court.
PARKHILL: Rec Hall became a great home court for us when we started getting good in the Atlantic-10. Students started standing the whole game—I got letters from the people who sat behind them, complaining. I was loving that. (laughs) It became one of the better venues in the country.
BARTRAM: I would not have traded our home games at Rec Hall for any place in the country.
STEVE WYDMAN: Players from other teams would come in and they’re like, “Jeez, the students are right on your back.” And that was Indiana’s first time there.
CALBERT CHEANEY: One thing I remember—on the sideline, kids were standing right there, just right up on top of you. We played at lot of places, but that year, the environment there was probably the best—for us the worst—as far as the atmosphere. It was second to none.
CARLTON: They didn’t realize what they were getting into when they came to Rec Hall.
CHRIS REYNOLDS: It made 5,000 people feel like 20,000.
But the Hoosiers weren’t easily intimidated. Led by Cheaney, the consensus national player of the year, Indiana fielded a roster filled with high school All-Americans and future pros. For the Lions, British-born big man John Amaechi gave Penn State its only likely matchup advantage. Hayes, a smooth shooter, was the Lions’ leading scorer. The rest of the roster was a patchwork of unheralded recruits, former walk-ons, and players playing out of position.
PARKHILL: We didn’t have a point guard, so Michael, who wasn’t a point guard, had to play point.
JENNINGS: What was in my mind was trying to get the ball up the court against this hounding defense. I had more of a “show” handle—I’ll cross you over, I’ll break you down off the dribble, but bringing the ball up the court all night is a whole different ballgame. You’ve got a defender turning you and turning you, and you’ve got to call a play. I really give kudos to Coach Parkhill for teaching me how to bring the ball upcourt.
WYDMAN: I don’t think Parkhill ever got enough praise for how well he did with that cast of characters.
PARKHILL: From an offensive standpoint, we were really concerned about using patience to get open shots. Defensively, our focus was not giving up second shots. That would be death.
BARTRAM: We had a lot of confidence going into that game—not necessarily that we were going to win, but we knew we were going to play well.
CHEANEY: We didn’t think it was going to be a cakewalk by any means. We knew after we beat them up pretty good, it was going to be a tough game.
HAYES: We knew we could beat them.
Indiana won the opening tip and Cheaney scored almost immediately on a backdoor layup. But Penn State never blinked. The Lions led by five early, then trailed by as many as seven late in the first half, but a flurry from Jennings and Bartram—capped by a three-pointer by Jennings just before the buzzer—made it 34-32 Indiana at the break. As ESPN play-by-play man Tim Brando put it, “David’s having a pretty good first half against Goliath.”
PARKHILL: With Michael, you just kind of hold your breath. A lot of times something great would happen. That night, he rose to the occasion.
CHEANEY: That Penn State team fought back admirably. I think it was the thought of, “We’re not going to get blown out the way we did last time.”
DURANT: I used to change in the wrestling room, which was right next to the visiting locker room. I was in there at halftime, and I got a full-on sense of what Bobby Knight sounded like. Every other word was a cuss.
Hassled by the Lions’ 2-3 zone defense and seemingly distracted by the crowd, Indiana struggled to score after the half. The Indiana big men got deeper into foul trouble in a futile effort to slow Amaechi. Carlton scored 10 points off the bench. Indiana stayed close, helped by timely shots and a trio of calls in Indiana’s favor so dubious that the TV announcers commented on them. It was a sign of things to come.
BARTRAM: When they started tightening up offensively, the fans and the atmosphere compounded the pressure on them. It really did have an effect.
CHEANEY: Once Penn State went to that 2-3 zone, they really gave us some problems. When teams did that against us, we got open threes. Normally, we didn’t miss those.
CARLTON: We stuck with a lot of teams for half or three quarters of the game, but then it got away from us. That night, we were knocking down shots. Bruce did a great job motivating us. You always felt like you had a shot.
PARKHILL: When I coached—this may sound weird—I couldn’t wait until the last five minutes. That’s when you were going to find out whether you were going to win or not. The rest of the game to me was a pain in the butt.
The final minutes of regulation were palpably tense. Hayes hit a jumper to tie it at 61, then scored inside to reclaim the lead. Indiana’s Greg Graham knocked down a three-pointer to put the Hoosiers back on top. Amaechi countered with a pair of free throws to make it 65-64 Penn State. The clock showed :41. ESPN’s Brando offered context: “Penn State on the brink of an upset that would match some of the greatest upsets of all time in college basketball.” On the next possession, Indiana’s Todd Leary lost his footing bringing the ball upcourt; Jennings scooped up the ball, drove for a layup, and was fouled. His free throw gave Penn State a four-point lead with 31 seconds to play. Rec Hall probably has never been louder.
WATCH THE FINAL 41 SECONDS HERE:
CRISPELL: I just remember thinking, We’re in this. Guys were sticking big shots. It was like they had no fear on the court, and you could tell they were buoyed by what was going on around them.
WYDMAN: Once we started getting some momentum, the crescendo was pretty incredible.
CHEANEY: You couldn’t hear yourself think in there.
PARKHILL: We were yelling to each other on the bench. We couldn’t hear each other. It was unbelievable.
After a timeout, Indiana’s Graham halved the lead with a driving layup, giving Penn State the ball with 24.7 seconds left. The Lions in-bounded from under their own basket, Hayes getting the ball to Jennings, who had it tipped away by Graham. Penn State set up another inbounds play, this time from the sideline in front of the student section, with :19 on the clock.
PARKHILL: In the meeting the day of the game, I said, “We’re going to put in another sideline inbounds.” That’s the play we ran to break Bartram.
BARTRAM: Our coaching staff had noticed that on sideline plays, Indiana didn’t put a man deep. We had been told to pay extra close attention to that. If they had nobody back, I was going to break. That was my read. I was supposed to look and see if there was anybody toward the basket.
There wasn’t. Penn State set up its new sideline play, with big man Eric Carr inbounding and Hayes, Jennings, Bartram, and Amaechi facing him in a “stack.” As the ref handed Carr the ball, Jennings leaned toward the Penn State basket while Bartram feinted toward the backcourt. And then they switched, Jennings drifting toward the backcourt and Bartram darting toward the rim. Reynolds, Indiana’s backup point guard, trailed a half step behind, a clutch of Bartram’s jersey in his left hand. Carr threw a perfect pass. Bartram—his jersey still in Reynolds’ grasp—controlled it, dribbled once, and laid the ball in. A whistle blew—surely, a foul on Indiana. Brando spoke for everyone watching: “And there’s a shirt—yep—no! Wait a minute—Bruce Parkhill can’t believe it! Chris Reynolds had his jersey.” His broadcast partner, Bill Raftery, filled in the pivotal detail: “They got the wrong guy … they called the push-off on Greg Bartram.”
PARKHILL: Greg was a great kid, just a huge heart. Greg didn’t get rattled.
BARTRAM: When I made the basket, I knew my shirt was getting pulled.
REYNOLDS: Growing up playing on the playground, if someone was headed in for an easy layup, we used to pull their jersey just for fun. I just reacted. The referee didn’t see it. He just saw Bartram slap my hand away.
PARKHILL: I’ll tell you what I remember. I saw Greg break open, and I was like, We got this. And then I see Sam Lickliter blow his whistle and go like that [waves his arm] and I knew that that wasn’t going to be good.
BARTRAM: I thought, Oh, they must not have counted the basket. So I start walking to the line to shoot free throws. I still wasn’t really aware of what happened.
WYDMAN: Greg did what we’re coached to do—if somebody’s grabbing you, get their hand off you.
CHEANEY: I didn’t get a chance to see it ’til we got back home. I’m not going to lie—it was a foul. It was a foul that the ref missed.
PARKHILL: It’s funny, during our staff meeting the day of the game, I was asking the assistants about the officials: “Well, who do we have tonight?” It was Gene Monje and Sam Lickliter. And my guy goes, “Oh, no.”
BARTRAM: I don’t think Lickliter ever came back to Penn State. But it was [Monje], the halfcourt official—that’s the guy who had the view of it.
HAYES: It all happened so fast, and it was like, “Oh, no. They’re not going to try to take the game like this.”
Indiana tied the score when Graham, fouled by Bartram on a three-point attempt with three-tenths of a second left, hit two of three free throws to force overtime. The Lions led by six in the first before Indiana tied it. Penn State held a four-point edge with 1:30 left in the second OT, but again the Hoosiers rallied. Brian Evans gave Indiana the lead for good, hitting a baseline jumper with five seconds to play. Then it was over. Indiana was still No. 1. The Lions walked off the floor, stunned, like the crowd, into silence.
PARKHILL: After the game, Coach Knight said, “You guys deserved to win that game.” We had the handshake, and that’s what he said. “You guys deserved to win that game.”
CHEANEY: We knew we got away with it. But a win’s a win.
PARKHILL: That game would’ve been something the guys could’ve really held onto. If you beat the No. 1, undefeated team in the country, you hang onto that the rest of your life.
CARLTON: We were going through a rough year. That would’ve been some serious redemption.
HAYES: It would’ve been better if we’d lost by 40.
BARTRAM: I can remember students telling us how great a game we all played, how we deserved to win it. They were hurt for us as well. There was a real sense that, man, we deserved to have that one.
CRISPELL: We led SportsCenter the next morning. That was a big deal.
PARKHILL: I have two folders of letters I got after that game, from people all over the country. I got letters from Indiana fans. I got a letter from the retired sports editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said it was the worst call he’d ever seen. I got a letter from a lady in Oregon, said she never watched sports, and she was surfing and saw the end of the game and felt she had to write a letter. It was incredible.
For those who coached, played in, and watched that game, 20 years have done little to dim the memory.
PARKHILL: Dave Jones from the Harrisburg Patriot called me and said, “The game’s going to be on ESPN Classic.” This was 2003. I hadn’t ever seen it. I watched with a friend and … I almost started crying. Everything just came rushing back. What I think about is the effort the guys gave, and how unbelievably loud that crowd was.
BARTRAM: I have had people call me on different occasions—a business associate of mine, the guy’s on a treadmill at a hotel in Dallas, and it’s on ESPN Classic.
CRISPELL: A good friend of mine had a VHS copy, and there were multiple occasions in college where he would just say, “You guys want to watch it?” Of course we did. You can’t look away. All you want is to get to that call.
REYNOLDS: People talk about it still, even here in Bloomington. It was one of those games.
HAYES: I have people who come up to me, “Yeah, I remember the game against Indiana. You guys got robbed.” It’s always that: “You guys got robbed.”
JENNINGS: I still think it’s a great testament that we touched more than just the Penn State community with how we played. They still remember. That’s crazy to me. But it’s not a sad memory, even though we lost. Sometimes you find victories in losses.