IOWA CITY — These are the games that Penn State always used to lose.
If it was a tough, physical, close, high intensity game on the road, it seemed as though the Nittany Lions always gave you a battle but came up just short in the end. That’s how they managed to go 17 years without winning a game in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
But maybe this Penn State team is different.
The Nittany Lions had their best perimeter shooting game of the season Saturday and found an answer for every run Iowa made in the second half, holding on for a 77-73 victory over the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten opener for both teams.
It was Penn State’s first victory at Carver-Hawkeye since the 2000-01 season and ended a 12-game losing streak in Iowa City.
"Last year we would have been blown out of the gym in this game," said Penn State coach Patrick Chambers, noting that he was "inspired" by the way his team bounced back from a tough loss to N.C. State on Wednesday.
"We definitely toughened up, grew up and matured today," he added.
For Iowa, however, it was more of the same: An uneven, inconsistent effort in which it played very well in stretches, but was fairly awful in others.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery admitted he is still waiting for his team to show the sort of toughness and maturity that Penn State displayed.
"Our decision-making at times was really poor," McCaffery said, pointing to 18 turnovers. "And our defense in the first half was unacceptable. … We just have to be better in execution in all areas."
Unfortunately, one of those really bad stretches Saturday was the start of the game. Penn State scored on its first six offensive possessions and bolted to a 14-4 lead, leaving the Hawkeyes to play catch-up for the rest of the afternoon.
"We didn’t have the best start to the game," junior Nicholas Baer said. "They were able to score at will. That’s something that has to change for us. When you’re down six or eight points the whole game, that’s definitely a tough hole to fight out of."
The Hawkeyes (4-4) never did quite catch up.
They trailed by five at halftime and fell behind by 10 early in the second half, then trimmed the gap to three points on seven different occasions. Each time, they turned the ball over or misfired and the Nittany Lions countered, very often with perimeter shots by sophomore guard Tony Carr.
"Several times we were able to get it to a one-possession game, and we’re turning the ball over and missing shots, and we have to go back and try to stop them again," Iowa sophomore Cordell Pemsl said. "It takes a lot out of you."
The Hawkeyes made one last run when Tyler Cook threw down a monster jam, then finished a 3-point play with a minute, 11 seconds remaining to slice the Penn State lead to 69-67.
A furious exchange of points followed, with Lamar Stevens hitting an 18-foot jumper for Penn State, Cook scoring on another dunk, the Lions’ Mike Watkins getting a breakaway dunk, and Cook throwing down one more dunk.
Penn State finally closed out the game at the foul line with Carr making two free throws with 9.2 seconds left and Stevens adding two more with 4.2 seconds showing.
Stevens finished with 22 points, with Watkins adding 19 and Carr 16. The Nittany Lions (7-2) did not get a single point out of their bench and were outscored in the paint 42-26, but they scored 22 points off all those Iowa turnovers.
The biggest number of all was 12 3-point field goals in 23 attempts.
"When a team makes 12 3s, you’re going to have trouble beating them," McCaffery said.
The Lions had not made more than nine 3s in a game all season, and they were shooting just 34.7 percent from behind the arc coming into the game.
"We made shots today," Chambers added. "Guys stepped up and made shots who normally don’t hit those shots."
Cook led Iowa with 23 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, but he also committed five turnovers. Chambers said he tried every defensive tactic imaginable to slow down the 6-foot-9 sophomore.
McCaffery was pleased with Cook’s numbers but said it certainly wasn’t a product of great ball movement by his team.
"It was better in the second half," he said. "It was non-existent in the first half. It was just throw the ball to TC and let him go to work. That’s not a motion offense."
The loss left the Hawkeyes contemplating why they continue to be so inconsistent eight games into the season.
"That’s a good question," Pemsl said. "We show it. We have tendencies of showing how great we can play. We’ve got to get rid of these slow starts and this on-and-off thing. …
"We’re right there," he added. "There’s just a few minor things we need to get adjusted and if we do that, then I think we’ll be OK."