UNIVERSITY PARK - Progress has been mostly in the eye of the beholder under Pat Chambers' three years at Penn State, but Sunday's 79-68 victory over Purdue at the Bryce Jordan Center showed some tangible results.
The score marked Penn State's first three-game win streak in Big Ten play since 2009, and it capped off perhaps the best on-court week of Chambers' tenure as it followed an upset at No. 24 Ohio State on Tuesday.
And for all the notions that the Nittany Lions (12-10, 3-6) were just a break or two away from a .500 or better conference record, they hadn't played well enough to end any Big Ten game's competitive phase much before the buzzer. But Sunday, they hit nine of their last 10 free throws and allowed Purdue within a possession of the lead just once in the second half.
Penn State's last loss was Jan. 18 at Purdue, one Chambers called devastating and one of three league losses by three points or fewer. But Chambers said he wasn't focusing on endgame shot selections and foul issues with the team, but rather things like allowing 17 offensive rebounds that made a difference throughout the game.
That showed up Sunday, as the Nittany Lions held Purdue (13-9, 3-6) to zero first-half offensive rebounds and they used a 21-4 run to build a halftime lead they never relinquished. The Boilers did pull 11 second-half offensive rebounds, but that was offset by their 37 percent second-half shooting.
Coincidentally, the Lions' last Big Ten win streak of this length was capped by a Super Bowl Sunday win at Michigan State, part of an NIT championship run. This Super Bowl Sunday win helped Penn State equal last season's win total and sustained realistic NIT chances in the interim.
"We haven't won three games in a row in a long time," Chambers said. "It will be interesting to see how we react."
Newbill led the Lions with 19 points, while Tim Frazier scored 18 and Brandon Taylor added 15.
Center A.J. Hammons led Purdue with 18 points and had 11 of his 12 rebounds in the second half. This was Purdue's fourth straight loss since beating Penn State in the first meeting.
"We need to get him to finish," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "Sure, we've struggled in that area, and he needs to shoot a higher percentage."
Perhaps the most important miss inside wasn't from Hammons, but from a Ronnie Johnson layup that Lion 7-foot center Jordan Dickerson swatted away. That could have pulled Purdue within a score, but Frazier took the rebound and Taylor hit a 3-pointer for a 49-41 lead.
Chambers noted how it's taken time for the team to adjust to Dickerson and John Johnson since both became eligible in midseason. He's comfortable with this rotation, one that has guard Graham Woodward starting over forward Ross Travis for more 3-point options, and using Travis, Johnson, and Dickerson heavily off the bench.
"(Dickerson) hides your mistakes, blow-bys by the guards, and he cleans stuff up for us," Chambers said. "It's unfortunate he got into foul trouble, because he was up at 7:30 this morning ready to go. He knew Hammons got him last time."
Purdue eventually drew within 51-49 on an Errick Peck 3-pointer with 10:06 to go, but two Frazier free throws shortly after gave Penn State at least a four-point lead for good.
Chambers was visibly disgusted at burning a timeout while up 70-63 after one of several confusions over the inbounds pass, some of which led to one-armed halfcourt lobs, but that didn't cost the team Sunday. Chambers had called the team whiny and distracted during an 0-6 start to Big Ten play, but the wins have resolved that - for now.
"We're on a high right now," Newbill said. " We're playing good basketball. There are mistakes, but we're not pointing fingers at the next person or the next one. That's what's helping us right now."