Penn State slides into March Madness contention with third win over Ohio State

NEW YORK -- Josh Reaves didn't expect to find himself in this spot. When the ball landed in the Penn State junior's hands under the hoop at Madison Square Garden with a shade less than five seconds left in a one-point game Friday night, he wasn't quite sure where exactly he was or how he had arrived there.

Reaves quickly found his bearings and flushed home a game-winning dunk, propelling his Nittany Lions to a 69-68 win -- their third victory over No. 13 Ohio State this season -- and a semifinal berth in the Big Ten tournament. In the process, Reaves and the Lions have found themselves in another unlikely spot: the league's last best hope for a fifth spot in the NCAA tournament.

"The climb is never straight up," Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said.

The climb for Penn State on Friday started with a fender bender on the bus ride across the city and some nervous glances at watches as game time drew nearer while the team waited to get through traffic. For Reaves, the climb started with one bucket -- a first-half 3-pointer -- on his first 11 attempts of the game.

Then a Shep Garner steal put the ball in Tony Carr's hands with a chance to upset the Buckeyes yet again on the game's final possession. Earlier this season, Carr banked in a buzzer-beating jumper to hand Ohio State its first Big Ten loss. This time around, the sophomore guard spotted Reaves' defender cheating toward him and knew Reaves would have a chance to slip behind him for an unchallenged look at the basket.

"I could tell my man was really just focusing on Tony more than he was focusing on me," Reaves said. "As soon as Tony dribbled toward me, he stepped up a little bit, so I just cut backdoor and he found me."

Three wins against any program in the space of a couple of months is impressive. Three wins against No. 13 Ohio State makes Penn State worthy of at least a look from the NCAA selection committee when it gathers next weekend. Penn State has shown it can beat a good team. The problem for the Nittany Lions is they still have to prove they can beat more than one good team.

Three of Penn State's five wins against Quadrant 1 and 2 programs this season are against the Buckeyes. Their next-most-impressive conference win looks to be an overtime victory at home against Nebraska, which might have played itself off the bubble with a loss to Michigan earlier Friday. Chambers' team ranked 81st in RPI at the start of the day. To earn serious consideration next weekend, the Nittany Lions probably will need at least one more win against a quality opponent.

Penn State's first NCAA tournament trip since 2011 would salvage a fifth spot for the Big Ten in what has widely been considered a down season for depth in the league. Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan all appear to be safely in the field of 68 heading into the week. The Spartans, Wolverines and Boilermakers are all still alive in New York, and a win over any three of those programs might be enough to move the Nittany Lions over a bubble they weren't expected to be sitting on a week ago. Penn State gets a shot at Purdue on Saturday, as the Boilermakers beat Rutgers 82-75 in Friday's nightcap at Madison Square Garden.

But for one night, Chambers was focused on what his team has accomplished. "That's a quality win," he said of the Ohio State game. "I hope they give us a hard look."

Reaves and his teammates said they're doing their best not to look beyond the next game. Another win over Ohio State, though, ensured them the opportunity to give the selection committee even more to look at on Saturday.