By GENARO C. ARMAS
AP Sports Writer
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State has relied increasingly on first-year players this season, to varying degrees of success.
The young Nittany Lions have grown into a confident bunch able to keep up with any team at home, as evidenced by victories over Top 25 squads Michigan State and Indiana during a five-game winning streak at the Jordan Center.
Now coach Ed DeChellis hopes his team, which features five first-year players in the starting lineup, can take the next step away from Happy Valley, starting Thursday at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis against Illinois.
Penn State (15-15, 7-11) is the seventh seed, its highest finish in the conference since 2001.
"They believe they are going to win, I believe in them," DeChellis said. "Hopefully, we take that on the road now. This is their first conference tournament so it will be interesting to see how they respond."
The Nittany Lions have lost seven straight road games after starting the Big Ten season with two consecutive road wins, including one over the Illini. Penn State also went winless in a three-game nonconference tournament on a neutral court in Florida in November.
Freshman point guard Talor Battle, who has started all but one game this season, talks like a seasoned veteran now. He's become more of a focal point on and off the court after the Nittany Lions lost their top two players, Geary Claxton and Jamelle Cornley, to season-ending left knee injuries.
While Penn State has been able to answer opponents' scoring runs in the Jordan Center, it has been more difficult away from home.
"On the road, you have to be tough enough that when you dig yourself a hole, to dig yourself out of it," said Battle, who is averaging 10 points and 30 minutes a game.
The physical toll of the long first season has affected Battle, too. He hurt his tailbone during a hard fall to the floor two weeks ago.
Still, he and junior college transfer and backcourt mate Stanley Pringle are usually two of the quickest guys on the floor, trying to get the Nittany Lions' offense going in transition.
"It's tiring, but you've got to find energy and rest your body so you can recover and perform," said Battle, sounding a little sluggish before a recent video study session of Illinois.
The rest of the fresh-faced starting lineup performed admirably in the overtime win over the Hoosiers that gave the Nittany Lions a momentum boost. Center Andrew Jones had five offensive rebounds and forward David Jackson scored the game-tying points in regulation, finishing with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
One of the biggest sparks came from forward Jeff Brooks, who stepped in for Cornley with a 12-point, six-rebound performance.
"We tried to do it with some younger guys, and kept taking some hits," DeChellis said about the team's injury bug. "But, a credit to our kids, they just kept getting better, they believed what we were trying to do. They made some plays and won some games."
How well they play at the conference tournament will have a big bearing on whether the Nittany Lions can extend their season later into March. One more victory, and more likely two, might enhance their postseason resume.
It would be a step forward from the disastrous 11-19 campaign of 2006-7. Athletic director Tim Curley said he thought the program was "headed in a great direction" both on and off the court.
"Certainly wins and losses are very important," Curley said. "We wish we had more, but I think we've made progress in that area given some of the circumstances that we've faced." Notes:
Cornley's arthroscopic surgery Monday on his left knee went better than anticipated, a team spokesman said. Doctors did not find damage to the cartilage or meniscus. He is still projected to be out at least three months and return for his senior season this fall.