Sometimes, one small decision can lead to unexpected consequences — a cascading series of events that would not have otherwise occured. I assume there’s a fancy psychological or sociological term to describe that, but this is a sports website, so we’ll just leave it at that.
For new Ohio State forward Evan Mahaffey — a transfer who played his freshman season at Penn State — one decision in one particular game last season may have completely changed the landscape of Big Ten basketball for years to come.
On March 1, Mahaffey’s former team, Penn State, was playing at Northwestern in a game that had gone to overtime. With the score tied at 65 and eight seconds remaining in OT, Jalen Pickett missed a contested jump shot from about 11 feet away. Instinctively, Mahaffey went up for the rebound over two Northwestern defenders, coming down with a massive board. He took one dribble, surveyed the perimeter, and found Andrew Funk on the far right wing, wide open, with four seconds left on the clock.
Multiple defenders charged at Funk, so the senior transfer guard passed up the shot and found Cam Wynter in the near corner for a wide-open, game-winning three-pointer that rattled down the tin with half a second remaining, putting the feisty Nittany Lions up three. Penn State desperately needed another statement win to feel good about locking up its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011. Thanks to that heads-up play from Mahaffey, they got it.
“After I grabbed the rebound, in the moment you’re not thinking too much. It’s more just instincts.” Mahaffey told me at Ohio State’s media day. “But the first thing I realized was there were two or three people down there with me. And where I caught the ball was a little bit farther out and there was a person right between me and the rim, and a person right behind him too. So that means someone’s open. So I automatically grabbed it, looked up, saw (Andrew) Funk, kicked it out, one more (pass), three.”
After winning that tough road contest, Penn State went on to beat No. 21 Maryland at home, followed by three consecutive wins in the Big Ten Tournament, before falling to Purdue by two points in the Big Ten championship game. With 22 wins on their resume, you’d think that would get them safely into the tournament, right? Wrong! Penn State did make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years, but they were assigned a 10 seed — meaning they were one of the final teams given an at-large bid that did not have to play a play-in game.
If you follow college basketball closely, you know how their March run ended. Penn State blew the doors off of Texas A&M in the first round, winning their first tournament game since 2001. They were knocked out in the second round by Texas, but Micah Shrewsberry’s speedy revival of the Penn State men’s basketball program earned him a promotion to Notre Dame, and thus began the mass exodus of the Penn State roster. Six players, including leading scorers Pickett and Seth Lundy, graduated. Four players who still had eligibility, including Mahaffey, transferred.
It’s not a stretch to say that if Mahaffey hadn’t come down with that crucial rebound against Northwestern, none of this would’ve happened.
We’ll never know if the Nittany Lions would’ve made the NCAA Tournament without that Quad-1 win against Northwestern. Penn State had a strong tournament resume, and even with that, they still just snuck in as a 10-seed. If Mahaffey hadn’t pulled down that rebound and Northwestern would’ve ended up winning the game, would the ensuing series of events have even happened?
If Penn State would’ve missed the NCAA Tournament, would Micah Shrewsberry have been offered the Notre Dame job? Would he even want to leave Penn State after coming so close to leading them back to the tournament, but just missing? Would Mahaffey have chosen to transfer away from Penn State if Shrewsberry hadn’t left?
I had the chance to talk to Evan a few weeks ago at Ohio State’s media day about this. He said that during the moment, it was all instinctual. But weeks later, after having the chance to sit back and really take in everything that had happened since that moment, he was able to grasp how big an inflection point that was in the season, and how it precluded so many big changes.
“I didn’t get to think about it that night.” Mahaffey said, “The transition from that game, on to (Big Ten) Tournament an on to the NCAA Tournament, it went on so fast. So I guess later on, I was able to sit back and be like ‘wow, that was a pretty big play.’”
It was a huge play, and not just in the sense that it might’ve locked up Penn State’s first tournament berth in over a decade. As it turns out, it also began turning the wheels of fate that eventually led him back to Ohio, where he was born.
“Coming here, this team has a very good chance to do really well this year,” he said. “That was one of the things I was looking for. And my family, my mom and dad — being able to see them more because I didn’t see them too much last year. It’ll allow them to come to more games, which will be nice.”