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Strong Individual Efforts Come Up Short: Texas A&M 98, Penn State 87

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Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens nearly willed the team to victory, but a more balanced attack from Texas A&M earned them the win.

NCAA Basketball: Legends Classic-Penn State at Pittsburgh Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

After a slow start to the game, the teams slowed down and it became a match-up between the Aggies’ dominance in the paint versus Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens penetrating their defense. With Watkins dealing with foul trouble, an assortment of Moore, Pierce, Stevens, and Harrar was used to try and limit Texas A&M’s Robert Wiliams, Tyler Davis, and Tonny Trocha-Morelos. Back-and-forth action made for a very entertaining opening twenty minutes with Penn State trailing by two.

This game had the physicality of a Big Ten match-up, in the start of each half the teams seemed to trade body-blows until someone flinched. In the second-half it was Penn State. A 21-6 run for the Aggies built a lead that would not be vanquished. Credit the team for fighting back, the game looked to be out of hand near the middle of the frame, but they stepped up defensively and forced the Aggies to earn it.

Overall it was a strong showing from Penn State, although it highlighted some of their issues that may haunt them in March. Carr and Stevens proved they belong on the court with anyone, while the supporting cast has some work to do. Since this was a test, I’d give the overall team effort a B.

First Half

It was a very physical start to the game on both sides, with few open looks for either team. Mike Watkins picked up his first foul just over two minutes into the game, and the Aggies looked intent on testing him early. On the other end, fluid ball movement allowed Penn State to find some easy baskets. Other than a wide open miss by Reaves from beyond the arc, this PSU team was determined to get the ball inside.

With about fourteen minutes remaining in the half, Robert Williams entered the game for the first time for A&M, with Mike Watkins on the bench. He immediately scored on an ally-oop, causing Chambers to counter with both Moore and Watkins on the court.

Through the first ten minutes, 3-point shooting was the difference in the game with the Aggies hitting three of their first five, while Penn State started 0-for-3. The team deserves some credit for persevering through a perimeter cold-spell, and finding other ways to score. Lamar Stevens led the way in that regard, driving the paint and scoring on contested layups. His finishing, along with Carr’s knack for drawing fouls, kept Penn State in the game when not much else was working. Here’s a look at a long three from Carr:

Watkins picked up his second foul with 8:58 remaining in the first half and the score tied at 19. Satchel Pierce followed suit just over a minute later, leaving Julian Moore and Stevens to contend with the talented front-court of the Aggies. In spite of his dominance inside, it wasn’t obvious that Robert Williams was the best player on the court, as Carr made a strong case. Take a look at this sick turn-around jump shot late in the first half from Mr. Carr:

A lot of teams around the country are being tested this week, and in the first 20 minutes Penn State looked up to the task.

Second-Half

The second-half started slowly with both teams failing to find much success from the field. The Aggies were able to score from the free-throw line, and continued to find Robert Williams in the paint. Without Tony Carr taking every shot, Penn State took some time to find their mojo. Josh Reaves hit a crucial three to keep the game close, but it looked like Texas A&M had come out determined to step up their team defense.

When the shots aren’t falling you go to your best finisher, which is just what the Nittany Lions did. Without any jump shots falling the offense continued to look out of sorts, and for the first time this season the defense couldn’t hold the line. Texas A&M built a 15-point with Penn State struggling to keep pace. A 21-6 run in under five minutes complicates things a bit.

Just as the game was getting out of reach, three straight turnovers by the Aggies (and three straight transition baskets for the Nittany Lions) brought the game within nine points with over ten minutes remaining. The Lions’ full-court press rattled A&M and managed to break them out of their rhythm on offense. As you might expect from a Pat Chambers-coached team, Penn State showed they would fight until the final buzzer.

With just over six minutes remaining and Penn State trailing by eight, foul trouble started to mount for both sides: Williams and Gilder with four fouls for the Aggies, and steal-happy Josh Reaves with four for Penn State. This, along with Garner’s struggles from 3-point range, led to Jamari Wheeler seeing extended playing time (ahead of Nazeer Bostick). Most impressive from Wheeler was watching him make sure the defense was set up after scoring a bucket, which is not something one would expect to see from a true freshman.

Down by eight at the under-four media timeout, Penn State had a final chance to close the gap and come away with the win, but was unable to do so. Shooting 26-for-29 from the free throw line, the Aggies held onto their edge, bolstered by a dominant performance in the paint. With nothing falling from beyond the arc for Penn State, the Lions had no room for error. It was a gutsy performance until the very end, but the Lions were never able to claw back.

PPP and Four Factors

Team Total Possessions PPP eFG% OReb% TO% FT Rate
Team Total Possessions PPP eFG% OReb% TO% FT Rate
Penn State 76 1.14 54.9% 25.0% 14.5% 45.9%
Texas A&M 1.29 65.5% 41.7% 22.4% 52.7%

The Aggies had six fewer field goal attempts and six more turnovers than the Lions, but were still able to convert two more field goals overall, hence the significant advantage in eFG%. Both teams got to the line about the same number of times (29 trips for A&M, 28 for PSU), but A&M took better advantage of their opportunities, nailing 26 of their attempts to PSU’s 20. That, plus a 37-23 total rebounding advantage made all the difference in this game.

Player of the Game: Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens

I don’t want to dwell on what this game might have looked like without these two. Carr’s dominant finish to the first-half kept the game close, as Stevens drew the short straw and had to guard Robert Williams during that same stretch. In the second-half the two-man show continued, but ultimately came up short. This team will go as far as Carr and Stevens can take them, but to come near their potential the duo is going to need more support. Here’s one play late in the game that they made out of whole cloth for a quick two points:

Random Observations:

  • John Harrar – He came in at the end of the first half to guard Robert Williams with Watkins and Pierce dealing with foul trouble. Williams’ athleticism was too much for Harrar to handle at times, but he did an admirable bodying up the future lottery pick. For an unheralded true freshman to provide key minutes against a tough opponent is huge. I expect we’ll see his playing time increase gradually throughout the season.
  • 3-Point Shooting – Shooting 26% or 5-of-19 from beyond the arc is not going to cut it, along with 1-for-6 from Garner. Not sure what the fix is here, but they’ll need to figure it out. This team is too good in the other aspects of the game to let 3-point shooting be their downfall.
  • Changing of the Guards – While Harrar’s playing time in the first-half had more to do with foul trouble, Jamari Wheeler played a significant role in the second half due to his ability to disrupt play. He was trading minutes with Garner, but was clearly ahead of Nazeer Bostick coming off the bench. It will be interesting to see if this carries over into the next few games.

Up Next

Penn State returns home to the Bryce Jordan Center and will face Oral Roberts on Friday, November 24th at 3:00 PM EST. The team will have a chance to regroup against a not-so-talented foe before taking a road-trip to play NC State. The game will air on BTN+.