Penn State Basketball defeated Illinois 71-67 on Saturday night in State College to move its Big Ten record to 4-5. It was the first time since 2009 that the Lions won their fourth conference game before the end of January. That’s a pretty good sign considering that the 2008-09 team came agonizingly close to the NCAA Tournament before cutting down the nets at Madison Square Garden with an NIT championship.
Although he’s struggled to establish himself since the start of the new year, Shep Garner led the way with 18 points, with Payton Banks and Tony Carr also reaching double figures. For more on Penn State’s much-needed victory, let’s hear from our basketball writers!
It was nice to see this team for once come out of the gates with some hot shooting that, combined with some solid defense, allowed PSU to jump out to a 20-point halftime lead. Shep Garner and Payton Banks were straight money from downtown, while Josh Reaves was Mr. Do Everything on the court, and Mike Watkins was a force down low offensively once again (that alley-oop was something to behold). Once again though, we saw a lengthy scoring drought (10-plus minutes) rear its ugly head, which almost resulted in PSU blowing a 22-point second-half lead. Thankfully, some clutch shooting from Tony Carr and Shep in the final minutes helped prevent the collapse from happening. I'm just relieved that this team was able to end a three-game losing skid that began with a heartbreaking buzzer-beating loss and was followed by back-to-back beatdowns suffered on the road. With a 4-5 B1G record and a more manageable portion of the schedule coming up (a trip to injury-riddled Indiana and Rutgers at home), I'm hopeful that the Lions can pick up an additional win and put themselves in position to reach the 8-10 conference record that I predicted in our preseason roundtable.
My worst fears were almost realized in the second half, as Penn State nearly found a way to negate their dominant first half performance which produced a 45-25 lead at halftime. After scoring 52 and 55 points respectively against Purdue and Wisconsin last week, a 45-point half seemed too good to be true. For the first time since they beat MSU at the Palestra, the team was picking apart an opposing defense with great ball movement, timely threes, and using turnovers to score in transition. This game showed us how high the ceiling can be with the current roster. Of course, in the second half we got to see how quickly things can fall apart. Mike Watkins delivered a performance closer to expectations, scoring 10 points with some beautiful finishes and also tallying nine rebounds. In the closing minutes the trio of Tony Carr, Shep Garner, and Josh Reaves did all the right things to ensure the win and deny Illinois' comeback bid. A more dominant win would have been nice, but a 4-5 record in conference play keeps Penn State well in the mix for a top-half finish in the Big Ten this year. Even in a down year for the conference, that's something to be excited about. Let's hope this young team can get some revenge against a beleaguered Indiana team on Wednesday night.
This was almost the Princeton game all over again. Instead, it turned into the Drexel game. Hopefully this scare puts a sense of urgency on the team that allows them to keep leads as well as they do when they're on the other side of the coin.
The team is collecting wins in games that it may have lost in the recent past. It's easy to forget that there are no seniors on the squad at times, and hard to forget at other times. There were several chances for the team to stem runs by Illinois before they got out of hand. It seemed as though Chambers gave his team the chance to recover on the floor, without calling timeouts where he may have before, to see if they could work things out. It cost the team eight to 10 points by the end of the game, but in the process, the youngsters had the chance to live through how scary it can be to have a 21-point lead and face the prospect of losing it. Next time the team will do the little things while it is up 12 or eight as a team is trying to come back from a 20-point lead, so that the lead doesn't dwindle to three like it did. And Chambers will likely be a little quicker to call timeouts now that he made his point and allowed his team to endure some adversity. Josh Reaves is a team leader, but he is still a sophomore that has not reached his ceiling. He gave the ball to Illinois as though it were a hand-off on the first possession of the game. He can clean that up. He made a great steal on an inbound pass, then threw the ball off Payton Banks's head while he wasn't looking. Reaves just made a freakish play, but instead of composing himself he tried to make another great play immediately after it. He will learn. Those are just two possessions, that were squandered by one of our best players. It's so nice that the team can win while learning these lessons.